ORLANDO, Fla., June 24 (UPI) -- Large areas of Florida's Everglades could be underwater by the time a multibillion-dollar plan to restore the region is finished, according to a University of Maryland researcher. But that might only make the plan more urgent, researchers and advocates said.
At stake is not only a national park and a home to unique wildlife, but also a flow of fresh water through South Florida that helps to replenish drinking water aquifers for the Miami area -- home to millions of people. If rising seas doom a plan to restore the area, all of that could be threatened.
While some argue the plan is becoming obsolete because of rising seas, others say the plan is needed more than ever. It addresses the health of coastal wetlands, a barrier against storm damage, and toxic algae events that menace central Florida. President Donald Trump recently agreed to support an increase in Everglades funding to $200 million for this year.
Congress authorized the long-range Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in 2000. But the plan was written before the public considered climate change and rising seas an imminent threat. Former Vice President Al Gore's movie that publicized global warming as an issue dates to 2006.
"Overlaying sea-level rise projections with the plan is something that will need to happen, but we have proof that the projects we're doing are helping already," said Celeste DePalma, director of Everglades policy for Audubon Florida.
"We rely on the Biscayne Aquifer for water, and that water flow replenishes the aquifer. Everglades restoration will buy time and allow wildlife and people to adapt," DePalma said. "If we don't do this, we need another plan for water supply and natural areas, and we don't have that."
A shorter peninsula
Seas could be 20 inches higher than the level anticipated in the plan by 2050, which could mean large areas of the Everglades would be underwater, said William Nuttle, a scientist with the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science. That should be grounds for a major rewrite of the plan, he argues. But not everyone agrees.
"Some scientists believe that Florida will be about 50 miles shorter by 2050, so the peninsula will actually end at Tamiami Trail by the time this restoration is finished," Nuttle said.
He authored a paper published recently titled "'Climate Change Alters What's Possible in Restoring Florida's Everglades."
"I'm not saying we shouldn't do restoration, but we should have accurate numbers for planning purposes," Nuttle said.
Others don't believe restoration plan should be updated, said René M. Price, chairwoman of the Department of Earth and Environment at Florida International University in Miami.
"The last thing I'd want would be for them to stop and try to update" the restoration plan, Price said. "That document is 20 years old. I think they need to focus on really letting the water go, to flow through the Everglades."
She said progress is being made that will help thwart the impact of rising seas.
Shannon Estonez, chief operating officer of the non-profit Everglades Foundation, agreed that restoration plans should use the best and current numbers for sea level rise. But she said all the research done on the Everglades indicates that more flow of fresh water to the south will help combat the effects of higher seas.
"It's about creating a sustainable ecosystem, to reverse the degradation of the Everglades," she said. "If you don't restore the ecosystem, the impact of sea-level rise is going to be worse."
She said Shark River Slough, a low-lying area southwest of Miami, could be underwater if seas rise and nothing is done. But with a flow of fresh water, the native Everglades plants will survive and help to hold back the ocean.
"The whole point is that when you restore fresh water flow to the south, you help offset some of the effects of salt water," Estonez said.
The goal of the comprehensive plan is to bring the area closer to its natural state -- before developers cut roads, canals and farm fields across it. Elements of the plan also address cleaning up polluted runoff from Lake Okeechobee, and sending less lake water into mid-Florida estuaries during the rainy season -- a major cause of fish kills and red tide algae blooms.
Nuttle said the plan as written only anticipated 6 inches of sea level rise by 2050. Now, even the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers anticipates that seas could be 26 inches higher in the region by that time.
And that doesn't take into account the world's ice sheets melting faster if global temperatures rise. In 2017, the National Climate Assessment of the United States said it is very likely sea level will rise between one and 4.3 feet by 2100.
Nuttle said that without revised numbers for sea level, the result could be spending billions on restoring areas of Florida that would be open water in a matter of decades.
He noted that research has detected growing frequency of saltwater intrusion in fields of native sawgrass in regions of the Everglades. Dying sawgrass plants mean the peat or soil underneath collapses.
Such trends eventually could accelerate the impact of sea-level rise. Nuttle said everyone working on the restoration plan knows the projections are outdated.
Nuttle's article follows a new Everglades Report Card, released in April by an interagency group that includes the Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service. They found that the Everglades is struggling to support the plants and animals that live there and the natural services they provide to humans.
But DePalma pointed out that the number of Everglades wading bird nest counts soared in 2018, mostly due to weather. And some areas that have benefited from restored water flow are showing healthier wildlife.
"So we know that what we're doing is working, and that we actually need more of it," DePalma said.
When Congress adopted the restoration plan in 2000, it would have taken an estimated 30 years to complete and cost $8.2 billion. That has increased to an estimated 50 years to implement and $10 billion in costs, not accounting for inflation. The plan has been plagued with underfunding and political red tape since it was authorized.
Trump's budget request originally was $63 million for South Florida Everglades restoration and $5.5 million for operations and maintenance. After Republicans including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis pushed back, Trump boosted proposed outlays.
"We have consistently urged that the federal government meet its commitment to Everglades restoration at a level of at least $200 million for this fiscal year -- an amount needed annually to restore America's Everglades for future generations, reduce polluted water discharges from Lake Okeechobee and help ensure clean drinking water for over 8 million Floridians," Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said in a March statement.