Reclaiming the Florida Everglades

“The massive reservoir project in western Palm Beach County was a vital piece of a $7.8 billion Everglades restoration project put together by President Bill Clinton in 2000. But work on the reservoir has stopped as Governor Crist has looked to put his own mark on restoration of the Everglades with the United States Sugar deal.”

The NY Times ran an interesting article recently on the Florida Everglades restoration effort – deemed the largest hydrological landscape restoration effort ever attempted.  The project has been in process since 1999, but significant elements of the plan have run into technical problems of a political and economic nature…industrial sugar production.

In order to restore the water storage capacity of the Everglades (for the benefit of wetland habitat as well as agriculture) rather than diverting runoff straight out to sea, the state government has been trying to purchase land surrounding the southern portion of Lake Okeechobee to create water storage reservoirs as outlined in the original plan strategy.  The NY Times article contends that the financially troubled U.S. Sugar Corporation  is agreeing to sell its land to the government, but only at an inflated price astutely negotiated by their team of lawyers.   Due to the current recession the state government is struggling to find the funds, which is further sweetening the deal for U.S. Sugar while placing the restoration effort on hold.

U.S. Sugar refinery south of Lake Okeechobee (NY Times).

The Lake Okeechobee area is just one component of the much larger restoration project that reveals the scale of the Army Corps of Engineers task of revising their half-century old works.  Lake Okeechobee alone has a surface area of approximately 730 square miles.  The Flood control infrastructure on Lake Okeechobee consist of a system of about 1,000 miles of encircling levees, designed to withstand a severe combination of flood stage and hurricane occurrence.

Map of the original Army Corp of Engineers “Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project” (found in the lengthy (4,000+ pages) Everglades Restoration plan, or Central and Southern Florida Project Comprehensive Review Study Final Integrated Feasibility Report and Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, or CERP)

There are over 700,000 acres of irrigated farm land in the Everglades agricultural area south of the Lake Okeechobee, a significant portion of which is owned by U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals. United States Sugar (a privately held corporation)  is the largest grower and producer of sugar in the U.S., accounting for 10% of national production, 75% of which goes directly into processed foods.  U.S. Sugar also operates citrus groves in the area. The land south of the lake is a strategically important farming habitat because it offers cold protection and temperature moderation for the tropical cane and citrus during occasional harsh winter weather.

Land Holdings map (N.Y. times)

Google composite aerial of the southern portion of Lake Okeechobee.  What formerly consisted of varied wetland and lowland habitats is now a continuous grid of industrial sugar and citrus production.

The debacle at the south shore of Lake Okeechobee demonstrates that the Everglades restoration is a bit of a misnomer.  The science-based engineering effort is much more a project of reclamation because it’s virtually impossible to recreate the Everglades as they originally were due to the extent of transformation that has occurred and the existing colonization of the territory by corporate processes.  Not to mention all of the imported invasive plants, animals (such as escaped and willfully released Burmese Pythons) and other organisms that will never be fully removed.

The practical goal of the operation (if we can use ‘practical’ in this context) is to reclaim the Everglades highly compromised ecological functions via new land forms and constructed systems that hopefully will result in a hybridized landscape that engenders self-sustaining or ‘natural’ processes.  The resulting landscapes will be very different from what is there now and what was there before southern Florida was urbanized.

Shifting the emphasis towards reclamation (i.e. restoring function rather than full replication) has the potential to open up new possibilities by breaking up the collection of assumed dichotomies embedded in nature vs. culture.  The approach reveals how intertwined and mutually dependent the two currently are and allows for the transformational process to be approached as a willful construction and speculative dream.

So how strategic is the CERP plan?  I don’t doubt the science at all.  The team of experts and the ongoing process of scientific review and adaptive management seems well-considered.  But  I do wonder how much design consideration has been given to potential synergies between the culturally productive landscape that is there now and the one that we are trying to create.  How much consideration has been given to the many thresholds where the two systems shall meet?  These thresholds are a predominant condition rather than isolated moments.

Howard Odum type diagram of the Lake Okeechobee existing ecosystem (pre-intervention) from the CERP Environmental Evaluation Analysis

For example, the model above identified eight in-lake stressors, which “exert significant impacts on the lake’s natural and societal values, originating from six external sources.  Elevated concentrations of chemical contaminants, including, chloride (Cl-), pesticides, and total dissolved solids (TDS), are by-products of agriculture or other human activities in the watershed. A much greater concern, in terms of ecosystem impacts, are the massive quantities of nutrients, in particular nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), which are discharged to the lake from agriculture.”

Is it possible to alter these stressors via intermediary systems that function at the threshold between wild habitat and agriculture?  Totally speculative conjecture,  but is it possible to create reclamation systems at the fringe between the two habitats to harvest nitrogen and phosphorus from runoff while also removing pollutants?  It seems that the vicious see-saw effect between the two environments could be the genesis for an environmentally and economically productive hybrid habitat, particularly in light of potential peak phosphorous.

In general, most environmental problems associated with corporate productive enterprises can be linked to a general lack of programmatic complexity. Many corporate landscape processes were and still are largely unifunctional and directional, rather than cyclic and cross-programmed.  Corporate processes have the potential to be revised, tacked-onto, co-opted or completely subverted in ways that facilitate more performance-based complexity and a broader inclusion of synergistic programming.

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