USA — In recent weeks, we’ve seen plenty of criticism about the details of the deal between the South Florida Water Management District and U.S. Sugar Corporation to purchase 181,000 acres for Everglades restoration.
While the deal is not perfect, perhaps the naysayers cannot see “the forest for the trees.” The very ability to manage water provide drinking water, prevent flooding, and maintain basic ecosystem functions in South Florida is at stake, and acquiring this land is the key to our long-term success or failure.
Every day that we don’t move forward on restoration, the intricate Everglades ecosystem breaks down a little more.
In recent years we suffered from one of the longest and worst droughts in South Florida history. One result was a raging fire in Everglades National Park that burned almost 40,000 acres. Peat soil that took thousands of years to accumulate was lost in a single afternoon. More recently, Water Conservation Area 3A, north of Everglades National Park, was drowning with dangerously high water levels.
These unnatural extremes are devastating not only to the environment, but to wildlife, including the Florida panther, and our coral reefs. They are stark demonstrations of the fundamental flaws in our antiquated water management system.
According to the National Research Council’s Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Progress, if progress is not made soon on important restoration projects, the Everglades’ continuing degradation may, at least in part, become irreversible.
Much has been stated about the high cost of this land purchase. Yet little attention has been paid to the many benefits that will come from this investment.
With more than seven million people already living in South Florida, we’ve outgrown a water management system built for fewer than two million residents. And we’ll now have the acreage required to create reservoirs and treatment areas to restore clean water flow from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades, reducing harmful discharges out to our sensitive estuaries.
South Florida’s tourism-based economy will also benefit.
Millions travel from all over the world to visit the Everglades every year, filling hotels, rental cars, restaurants, and other tourist attractions. Recreational use of natural areas and parks by both tourists and residents is one of the most important economic activities in Florida. Research shows that protected lands actually correlate more with greater economic growth than do lands utilized for natural resource exploitation.
Is $1.3 billion too much to save this unique ecosystem that exists nowhere else in the world? Is it too much to ensure that we have a clean water supply and economic development for future generations of South Floridians?
When President Harry Truman dedicated Everglades National Park in 1947, he stated: “The benefits our nation will derive from this dedication will outlast the youngest of us. They will increase with the passage of years. Few actions could make a more lasting contribution to the enjoyment of the American people than the establishment of the Everglades National Park.”
As Gov. Charlie Crist provides great leadership for the Everglades, we look to the 110th Congress and the Obama administration to renew the federal commitment to fund the restoration plan. Only with a strong federal-state partnership can we truly achieve our goals.
There’s still plenty of work to be done. On Jan. 9, during the 24th Annual Everglades Coalition Conference in Miami, a key plenary entitled “Restoration after the Sugar Deal” will explore issues we will face in the coming months. We will also hear experts discuss Everglades restoration as it pertains to growth management, political and public partnerships, endangered and invasive species, wildlife habitat, energy policies, and water quality.