Everglades (Flickr)

FL - Signs of Everglades recovery emerge

MIAMI (AP) — After decades of planning and pleading for political support and dollars to restore the Everglades, there are growing signs that the massive multibillion-dollar effort is beginning to “get the water right.”

That’s long been the measure of success for the federal and state agencies tasked with the job. The goal sounds deceptively simple but is immensely complicated, requiring not just sending more water through the parched southern Everglades and into Florida Bay but ensuring that bordering communities aren’t flooded in the process.

The most encouraging indicator: Wildlife, the measuring sticks of a healthy Glades, has rebounded in areas in many areas across the system.

During an Everglades Foundation-led tour of state-owned wetlands just north of the park on Friday, bird life was abundant. And scientists are seeing rising rates of bird and alligator nesting to the south in Shark River Slough, where Steve Davis, chief scientist for the Everglades Foundation, said “we are seeing historic levels of flow.”

But water managers also point to how the partially re-engineered system performed during the major recent test of Hurricane Ian. The powerful hurricane took more than a hundred lives, but it also dumped tremendous amounts of rain throughout the state, including every corner of the Everglades.

In the north, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently finished restoring the Kissimmee River to its natural meandering state, the river absorbed and cleaned much of the floodwaters. A smaller amount then drained down into Lake Okeechobee, the liquid and too-polluted heart of the Everglades system. A newly built reservoir near the St. Lucie River soaked up even more rain, meaning less dirty lake water was discharged to the east and west — releases that have periodically triggered fish-killing algae explosions on both coasts.

“It cut those discharges to less than a week, when it would have been weeks otherwise. This kind of project works,” Drew Bartlett, the executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, that state agency leading restoration efforts, said during a presentation at last month’s Everglades Coalition Conference.

It’s the $4 billion ‘crown jewel’ of Everglades restoration. But will it be enough?

Farther south, a now-elevated section of Tamiami Trail lets more water flow to swaths of Everglades National Park long cut off from the natural flow of the River of Grass. But newly installed underground steel walls that protect the Las Palmas community, a neighborhood right on the park’s edge, kept homes and streets dry even as water flowed south — unlike previous years.

“With that underground wall, that did not happen this year,” Bartlett said. “The walls, game changer. Raising Tamiami Trail, game changer. It’s all working and it’s very exciting.”

Storing more water and routing it to the right places will also make the Everglades and South Florida more resilient to the projected impacts of climate change, including increasing sea rise and the potential for wetter hurricanes.

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