NAS Report on Everglades Restoration Co-authored by UMD Scientist Shows Progress, Raises Climate Concerns

NAS Report on Everglades Restoration Co-authored by UMD Scientist Shows Progress, Raises Climate Concerns

Progress continues to be made in congressionally authorized efforts to restore the Everglades says a new National Academies report coauthored by Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at the University of Maryland and interim director of UMD’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center.

The report by the 14 members of the Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Project Progress is the sixth annual evaluation of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). In it, the committee says that work carried out under the plan has accomplished positive results—more water flows through the Everglades system than when the restoration began and the new system performs better in the face of rain or drought, absent extreme conditions. 

Miralles-Wilhelm and the other authors also say the restoration program needs to account for the effects of climate change to achieve projected levels of water flow and extreme weather tolerance.

The Florida Everglades’ cypress swamps, mangrove trees and “river of grass” cover the southern 20 percent of the state, making it the largest freshwater wetland in the United States. Since people started draining the wetlands for habitation and agriculture in the 1800s, about 50 percent of the Everglades have been lost, resulting in droughts, flooding and less available freshwater for residents.

As a result, in 2000 Congress authorized CERP, a multibillion-dollar project created to “restore, preserve, and protect the South Florida ecosystem while providing for other water-related needs of the region, including water supply and flood protection.” The plan outlined an extensive number of projects with the overarching goal of restoring water flow to pre-drainage patterns while accounting for the needs of current residents. However, less than 20 percent of these planned Everglades restoration projects have been funded to date.

“You can think of the CERP as a replumbing of the Everglades water system, and if you want the plumbing to work right, you have to account for how climate change affects the amount of water in the system’s pipes—its wetlands, canals and reservoirs,” said Miralles-Wilhelm.

The report recommends specific actions be taken to update the CERP, such as performing new assessments and analyses, and developing planning and management models that take climate change into account. The goal is to adjust plans for future canal and reservoir engineering projects to account for climate change before they are built.  

Image above shows comparisons of historic (left), current (middle) and Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projected (right) patterns of water flow throughout the Everglades area.

“Adjustments are necessary because climate change leads to both a rise in sea levels and changes in rainfall patterns,” explained Miralles-Wilhelm. “The sea is salt water and the rain is freshwater. The combination leads to dramatic changes in the distribution of freshwater throughout the Everglades wetlands. This impacts not only the ecosystem, but also the ability of the canals and reservoirs to provide adequate protection against floods and droughts in the increasingly urbanizing south Florida environment.”

As a member of the committee, Miralles-Wilhelm’s drew on his scientific research on  the way water moves through complex ecosystems such as wetlands and his personal experience living in Miami for over 10 years while on the faculty of Florida International University and the University of Miami. 

During the two years spent preparing the report, Miralles-Wilhelm and other members of the committee took trips to the Everglades to inspect the existing and planned canals and reservoirs. They also participated in a series of intense meetings with stakeholders—state agencies, NGOs, private companies, local municipal governments, Florida and U.S. government officials, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Park Service.

“We reviewed the science being used for restoration and examined whether that science was sound and whether every effort was being made to incorporate the latest science,” said Miralles-Wilhelm, who led the committee’s climate change-related research efforts. “That’s when we realized climate change had not been considered in the original CERP and may be the reason why the system cannot handle increasing conditions of drought or flooding.”

In addition to the scientific and engineering work that lies ahead to incorporate the effects of climate change, financing the CERP remains a challenge. The report warns that with more than 80 percent of CERP projects unfunded to date, it could take 100 years to complete the CERP at the current funding rate, during which time the Everglades would decline further. The report notes that completing the CERP in 50 years, as estimated in a 2014 Congressional Research Service report, would require “substantial additional investment.”

Miralles-Wilhelm believes a top priority for tackling these challenges is to make the economic case for Everglades restoration as impacted by climate change.

“If you look at the economic activity of South Florida, the big three are tourism, agriculture and urban development. Climate change hits all of them,” said Miralles-Wilhelm. “I don’t think it’s a huge leap to say that improving the Everglades ecosystem will improve each of these economic sectors, but I do think that convincing the average citizen, business person and policymaker remains to be done. Otherwise people will say ‘this is another climate change project’ when it’s actually geared toward the social and economic development of the state.”

This work was supported by the Department of the Army (Cooperative Agreement No. W912EP-04-2-0001), the U.S. Department of the Interior and the South Florida Water Management District. The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

February 7, 2017

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