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The Everglades' original plumbing worked just fine. But as the marshland was cleared away and its natural flow was redirected to accommodate exponential growth, its natural filtration capabilities were ruined. The South Florida Water Management District is undertaking a massive fast-track effort to reverse water pollution in the sub-tropical wilderness. Photo: Virginia McKain
To save the Everglades

The challenge: To restore and preserve south Florida's natural ecosystems while enhancing water supplies and maintaining flood control.

The issues: The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) is bogged down by rising construction costs and a sluggish funding and construction timeline that spans three decades.

The solution: The Acceler8 expansion program, which will complete eight CERP stormwater treatment area projects ahead of schedule. The projects provide half of the needed water storage for CERP and clean water flowing into the Everglades.

The timeline: Acceler8 projects began October 2005 and are scheduled to be completed in 2010.

The cost: $1.8 billion

The Everglades is a dying ecosystem. Once as large as 3 million acres, the Everglades habitat has shrunk by almost half. For well over a century its wetlands have given way to homes, businesses, and farms as south Florida's population boomed.

Now that the Everglades's natural water flow has been altered to civilize Florida, civilization is attempting to alter the wetlands again—this time to save the Everglades.

“The goal is to improve water quality and get the right amount of water back into the Everglades,” says Randy Smith, public information officer of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD).

The problem lies in a complex system of canals, roads, levees, and pumping stations that eliminated the Everglades's natural drainage system.

Built first to drain the wetlands for settlement, and later to provide flood control after devastating hurricanes during the 1920s and '40s, the flood control system works so well that it's starving the Everglades of water. Meanwhile, farmlands added phosphorous in the form of pesticides and insecticides to the runoff water, which polluted the remainder of the Everglades. More than $11 billion is being invested to reverse the damage.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP)—the largest ecosystem restoration effort in the world—was approved for federal funding by Congress in December 2000. The plan calls for capturing fresh water that flows out to sea under the current canal and levee system and holding it in reservoirs and deep wells, to be redirected and released gradually to areas that need it the most. This process of capturing rainfall and slowly releasing it into the land mimics what was once the natural flow of the Everglades.

CERP includes tearing down levees, filling canals, and constructing new water storage areas on land formerly preserved for agriculture and new development. Constructing more stormwater treatment areas (STAs) is an important element of the plan because STAs reduce phosphorous levels before they enter the Everglades, says Smith.

BOGGED DOWN

But CERP has not gone according to plan.

For one thing, construction costs are skyrocketing. Another hindrance is the timeline: CERP includes more than 60 elements that will take more than 30 years to construct. What's more, although $1.4 billion was authorized to begin work in 2000, state and federal sponsors must return to Congress every two years to get new projects funded.

SFWMD found a way to speed construction with the Acceler8 expansion program—aimed to hasten the funding, design, and construction of eight of the most critical CERP projects. Florida is using general revenue dollars and “creative financing” to fund the $1.8 billion program, says Smith, by borrowing and selling Certificates of Participation—federal bonds for environmental projects. So far the state has raised $2 million, and plans to sell enough bonds to cover all Acceler8 costs.

Work began October 2005; land has been cleared and test cells have been constructed and verified as viable design models for reservoirs. With Acceler8 already in place, the Everglades should experience some positive benefits by as early as 2010—more than 10 years ahead of schedule.

“It's a very aggressive schedule, but we thought it was important to complete these projects before the original federal funding schedule called for it,” says Smith.