Guest Column from the Treasure Coast Star –
It took years of study, debate and negotiation, but in 2012 federal and state agencies, water managers, farmers, environmentalists and other stakeholders reached agreement on a plan to complete the final phase of southern Everglades restoration, including bringing Everglades water quality up to ultralow standards that are remarkably ambitious and the most stringent in the nation.
Given the challenges, both ecological and political, that true Everglades restoration faced a few short years ago, achieving consensus on the Restoration Strategies plan was itself an historic achievement. But as remarkable as it was to reach that consensus and produce a meaningful plan, implementing that plan presents an equally daunting challenge.
First, executing the Restoration Strategies obviously requires funding. A lot of it. Florida’s legislature and Governor Scott responded to that challenge by committing $880 million to complete the critical projects agreed to in the consensus-based plan. Pledging that kind of money is never easy, but it is especially difficult with special interests on all sides trying to divert dollars to their pet projects and priorities. Fortunately — for both the Everglades and the taxpayers, science and expert guidance prevailed, and the state’s political leadership has held firm to the Restoration Strategies.
Today, that determination is already producing results. The South Florida Water Management District has announced that the first major Restoration Strategies project, the A-1 Flow Equalization Basin in Palm Beach County, is nearing completion. In fact, water is already flowing into the basin, which is designed to capture peak stormwater flows and allow vegetation such as bulrush and cattails to naturally reduce phosphorus levels in the water.
With levels of phosphorus and other nutrients reduced to acceptable standards, water managers will then be able to release that water south and east into massive constructed wetlands (Stormwater Treatment Areas) at the right times and right amounts to allow further natural treatment by vegetation before eventually flowing into the Everglades. Completing the A-1 is no small feat. Creating the basin, which is capable of holding 60,000 acre-feet of water, requires 16,500 cubic yards of concrete, 2,100 tons of steel and 21 miles of levees.
It has a footprint of 15,000 acres and will use almost 5 million cubic feet of fill material and topsoil. And as impressive as the A-1 is, it is only one element of a plan that will ultimately provide 116,000 acre feet of storage in equalization basins, significant expansion of wetlands for water treatment, and continuation of the successful Best Management Practices (BMPs) program (pioneered by sugarcane farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area in conjunction with University of Florida researchers) to reduce phosphorus levels at sources.
These innovative soil and water management techniques have reduced phosphorus levels in water leaving the farms by 79% in 2015, and overall BMPs have reduced phosphorus levels an average of 56% a year for the last 20 years. Florida taxpayers, farmers, businesses and leaders have remained committed to Everglades Restoration for decades — with their dollars, their willingness to compromise and political courage.
As water begins to flow into the first of the major projects included in the hard-fought Restoration Strategies plan, Floridians can finally see and appreciate that the final phase of more than 30 years of work is rather quickly becoming a reality.