Plan to Quench Everglades' Thirst

Martin is a contributing news editor and writer based in Amsterdam

WASHINGTON, D.C.--Vice President Al Gore today presented Congress with a Herculean plan to restore a more-natural water flow to the Everglades, the vast wetland in southern Florida, while safeguarding the booming region's water supply. The $7.8 billion plan, the most expensive restoration effort ever undertaken, calls for a 20-year overhaul of southern Florida's water management system, with the cost split between the state and the federal government.

Often called the "River of Grass," the Everglades once was a 60-mile wide, shallow sheet of water flowing ever so slowly through southern Florida. A devastating blow was dealt to the unique ecosystem in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, beginning in 1950. During that time, the Army Corps of Engineers, to ensure water supply and prevent floods, built over 1000 miles of levees and canals that channel water from the area north of the Everglades to urban and agricultural areas. Called the Central and Southern Florida Project, the waterworks dump 1.7 billion gallons of water into the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico every day. As a result, the Everglades is drying out, and plant and animal species are dwindling.

Now the Corps hopes to undo its grand mistake. Its plan calls for stopping the diversion of water by filling in more than 500 miles of canals and levees, creating new surface water reservoirs, and drilling more than 300 wells to store billions of gallons of fresh water in an underground aquifer. Most of the water that now flows to the sea would be directed to the Everglades again.

The plan has received endorsements from Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Florida's members of Congress, and many environmental agencies. "This is a cutting-edge project," says Stuart Strahl, vice-president of the National Audubon Society. "We're really setting precedents here."

Later this month, the National Academy of Sciences will appoint a panel to guide the plan's implementation. That provision--made earlier this year after scientists had charged that some of the science underpinning the project is flawed--has won over some of the last skeptics, including the Sierra Club. It contends the aquifer idea could have unforeseen side effects, such as damaging the caverns that form the aquifer. "We are now confident that the panel will make the review and make the necessary fixes," says the Sierra Club's Frank Jackalone. Work on the Everglades could begin next year.

Posted in Environment