By Ms. Brigida Inez Sanchez (USACE)December 30, 2019
For generations artists, musicians and poets have been inspired by the wonders of the great outdoors, capturing a fleeting moment of expansiveness to share with the world.
But recently I had the chance to wake up early with the mosquitoes to document the Florida wild. With my boots suctioned in mud I could not help but think how we, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, had earned a seat at the ecosystem restoration table and why is it so important.
Here's a concise history of how the Corps got in to the business of draining South Florida.
In the 1920's the federal government started "draining projects", seeing Florida not only for its opportunities in tourism, but for its perfect climate for certain types of agriculture. It wasn't until after two destructive hurricanes devastated the region that we decided to shape the landscape to our needs.
The first was "The Great Miami Hurricane" of 1926 that destroyed property, leaving thousands of people homeless. The amount of water generated by the storm caused the dikes around Lake Okeechobee to breech and many lives were lost. The second was the hurricane that struck in 1928, the "Okeechobee Hurricane." It is estimated that 2,500 people died from this catastrophic event.
A confluence of needs to provide safety, security and economic growth is what drove Congress to authorize the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to work in collaboration with the State of Florida under the Central and South Florida Project to drain the states southern wetlands.
Knowing this much led me to Eric Summa, the Planning and Policy Division chief, who took the time to answer my questions about the importance of ecosystem restoration. Summa, explained that ecological restoration helps whole populations. It cleans water for use by humans and wildlife, and makes more water available for consumption and the ecosystem during both wet and dry times.
The Corps has four priorities when it comes to ecosystem restoration, which are improving the quality, quantity, timing and distribution of water.
"When we improve the quality and quantity of the water in the ecosystem, life flourishes. Everything from the microbiotic species to small invertebrates, fish, birds, small mammals and deer all benefit from ecosystem restoration efforts. When we get the water right, these species become abundant, growing populations and providing benefits to everyone from those that subsist on the ecosystem to those who recreate or depend upon recreation as a commercial business," said Summa.
According to Markets Insider's article, 13 Mind-blowing Facts about Florida's Economy, two-thirds of Florida is farmland. The tourism industry contributed $111.7 billion dollars to the State's economy in 2016. The Everglades generates more than $15.7 billion of direct spending by 292.8 million park visitors in communities within 60 miles of a national park, according to the National Park Service and this does not include ecological benefits such as carbon sequestration, and an ideal environment for a variety of species to breed.
The congressionally authorized Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) is a partnership to restore, protect and preserve water resources in the region, in turn, providing a sustainable way of life. The Corps has invested $2.4 billion to date into the overarching South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Plan since the restoration process began with a congressional authorization in the 2000s. As we come upon 2020 the Corps has already completed a number of projects toward that end such as the Melaleuca Eradication and other Exotic Plants Annex, Picayune Strand and the Kissimmee River Restoration Program.
Being one of the world's largest ecosystem restoration programs means that there are lots of moving pieces and that it takes time to restore more than 2.4 million acres of the vulnerable wetlands. To drain the marshlands in the late 1920s was simpler in that there were fewer inhabitants, along with the promise of economic growth to come with the environmental modification. Now the number of people has escalated past eight million.
Summa said, "Those populations all enjoy a level of flood mitigation that can't be disrupted by ecosystem restoration efforts. This balance of trying to achieve restoration, while maintaining flood protection benefits, significantly complicates and extends ecosystem restoration efforts."
People and flood risk management aren't the only challenges that the Corps and its partners face. Of primary importance, the water used for restoration purposes must be clean. As a consequence, the Corps participates with it's non-federal sponsor in the necessary treatment of agriculture, development, septic and waste water for its high nutrient levels.
"High nutrient water causes the ecosystem to react in a dramatically different way than it did in its pre-drainage condition. Where we have poor quality, high nutrient water we have more algal blooms," said Summa. "Low water quality also converts historic saw grass marsh to nutrient loving cattail and willow. So much of the challenge with Everglades Restoration is collecting and treating water first before distributing it to the Everglades and other natural landscapes so the quality of the water doesn't change the character of the ecosystem."
The water must be treated somewhere and land has to be acquired to create Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs). These STAs function as natural filtration systems, wetlands that work in conjunction with reservoirs such as C44 east of Lake Okeechobee and C43 west of Lake Okeechobee which help to restore and sustain flows and mitigate flooding.
Summa said, "What we have learned from our past is that the land serves humans best when it also serves the needs of a broader, diverse ecosystem. When shallow water is sheet flowing across the landscape it creates a dynamic ecosystem, where terrestrial and aquatic life work symbiotically supporting diversity, primary production and food webs that ultimately serve human populations."
When one stands in a field of grass and cypress in the Everglades National Park, the earth seems to slightly swallow and root one down, and the solitude pulls at one's senses. The smell of the earth, the water that hangs lazily in the air, its lush greens and umbers dancing to the dynamic soundtrack of its creatures and the elements. Being there provides compelling perspective to the unremitting work of conserving a national treasure and searching for the balance between man and nature.
The goal of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is to protect and restore the
nation's ecosystems for the economic, environmental and social well-being of current and future generations. We will continue to collaborate with others to deliver state-of-the-art natural and engineered solutions for many of the nation's most complex environmental challenges.