Everglades ‘restoration’ causing major environmental problems

Published October 1, 2002

The plan by the Army Corps of Engineers to protect seaside sparrow nesting grounds is but one aspect of an Everglades restoration plan that has been evolving for more than a decade. Despite its varying forms, the ultimate goal of the plan has remained the same: to raise the water table and increase the water flow through the swamps.

This “restoration” of the Everglades, however, is causing some major unforeseen environmental problems throughout South Florida.

During recent years, a mass of jet-black seawater, closely resembling an oil spill in appearance, has sporadically formed off the southern tip of Florida. Local fishermen were the first to spot the black water. As reported in the Naples News, “They noted an absence of game fish in normally rich waters, and fishermen are reporting the worst season for several different types of fish that they’ve seen in many years.

“They’d spotted a huge mass of black water apparently devoid of fish just off Southwest Florida and moving slowly toward the Florida Keys.” Satellite photos taken in January and February of this year showed the black water mass covered more than 700 square miles, larger than Central Florida’s Lake Okeechobee.

The jet-black water often approaches just yards from the shore. Areas affected include Florida Bay (an area between the tip of the Everglades and the Florida Keys) to as far north as Port Charlotte on the West Central coast.

A study by University of Rhode Island oceanographer Scott Nixon, published by the National Academies’ National Research Council, concluded the black waters are caused by higher water levels in the Everglades that lead to greater runoff into coastal waters. The increased Everglades runoff causes masses of dark marine algae to bloom offshore. The traditionally clear, azure waters of Florida Bay and the Florida Keys are likely to be regularly stricken by black, choking algae under the new Everglades plan.

Supporters of Everglades “restoration”—most of whom don’t live anywhere near South Florida—argue the ink-black water, together with its catastrophic effects on offshore plant and animal life, is desirable as a “natural” phenomenon. “So the local fishermen don’t catch as many tarpon as they used to, or get to go out boating in crystal clear water,” sniffed a self-described environmentalist visiting the area. “That’s just a return to nature.”

Local residents, however, disagree. Brian Lapointe, senior scientist at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, warns that fragile coral reefs in the Florida Keys will die as a result of increased Everglades runoff. Killing the coral reefs will kill the reefs’ inhabitants.

And it’s not just the coral reefs that are in danger. Lapointe notes the once-lush sea grass beds in Florida Bay have been dwindling recently, as well. The beds provide necessary habitat and breeding ground for the fish, shellfish, and marine mammals that populate Florida Bay and nearby Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico waters. Kill the sea grass and you kill its inhabitants, as well.

Some observers argue the increased Everglades runoff is a problem only because the water contains an artificially high level of nitrogen and other nutrients due to South Florida industry, agriculture, and lawn care. While this argument may or may not be proven true, the fact remains that elevated Everglades runoff, caused by Army Corps of Engineers policy, is having a deadly effect on nearby coastal regions.