Southeast
The sun sets June 5, 2003 over the Florida Everglades. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

FL - Climate Change Forces a Rethinking of Mammoth Everglades Restoration Plan

Even as the $21 billion effort unfolds, officials realize that its water infrastructure cannot contend with rising seas, violent storms and Florida’s non-stop influx of residents.

ORLANDO, Fla.—In 1948, work got underway in the Florida Everglades on a public works project hailed as the nation’s largest, aimed at reigning in once and for all the mighty river of grass that once spanned much of the peninsula.

The effort would take decades to complete and involve some of the most complex water management infrastructure in the world, including some 2,200 miles of canals, 2,100 miles of levees and berms, 84 pump stations and 778 water control structures. The framework would alter the Everglades forever and transform the state: Today it provides flood control and supports the drinking water supply for some 9 million people in central and south Florida. Meanwhile the natural river of grass has been reduced to a remnant of its former self.

By the 1990s, however, a reckoning was at hand. Residents were awakening to a litany of environmental concerns, most notably that draining the Everglades had left Florida with a dwindling drinking water supply for the state’s booming population. The federal and state governments embarked on a restudy of the original public works project, which would lead to a mammoth $21 billion restoration plan for the Everglades that remains among the most ambitious in human history, involving some 68 projects that will take many decades to complete.

Now, climate change is forcing another rethinking: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District are poised to begin a new restudy of the Everglades’ historic water management infrastructure aimed at adapting the framework to deal with rising seas, violent storms and a continuing influx of people.

The restudy could mean some alterations to the Everglades restoration plan, said Tim Gysan, resiliency senior project manager in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Jacksonville District. Back in the 1990s, he notes, climate change wasn’t really something people talked about.

“We’re seeing sea level rise creep up,” Gysan said. “We’re seeing more intense storms.  The population increase is massive over the last two to three decades, and more people continue to move here because it’s such a great place to live. But those people moving in, they have to live somewhere. They work somewhere, and that means land use changes.”

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