Guiding this ambitious regional planning process is a common awareness that the entire system A from the headwaters of the Kissimmee River to the coral reefs of the Keys A is interconnected. What goes into the ground in Belle Glade comes out at Florida Bay. What happens to water levels in Lake Okeechobee will partially govern what pours from your kitchen faucet in Opa-locka.

There is also another common understanding: The natural ecosystem gets first dibs on water. In fact, this is law. Florida statutes require the state to establish the "minimum flow" of water and "minimum water level" in the aquifer at which "further withdrawals would be significantly harmful to the water resources or ecology of the area." According to Water Management District attorney Cecile Ross, even though these statutes are more than twenty years old, "they are up for interpretation. We haven't had a lot of litigation because we haven't gotten to the point of water wars. But I think as growth increases in South Florida and we are forced to send more water to the Everglades, we're going to be going to court on these statutes."

A cornerstone of the ongoing efforts to redress the ills of South Florida's ecosystem is the replumbing of the entire canal-and-levee system built by the Army Corps of Engineers. At the Key Largo meeting, the Corps presented a range of proposals from which it will soon choose its restoration strategy. The most modest proposal would simply alter the timing and volume of water that moves through the existing system. The most ambitious plan would create a buffer zone of reservoirs and marshes along the western edge of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties; raise the Tamiami Trail on stilts; and knock down levees that block the natural flow of the Everglades.

Stuart Appelbaum, an Army Corps planner who is leading the replumbing study, told the conference that researchers are "using the natural systems model as a conceptual target. How close are we going to get to that model? I'm not sure at this point." Next month the study team will select a preferred alternative. But Appelbaum, chief of the Corps' Ecosystem Restoration Section in Jacksonville, says completion is a long way off. "The whole project has a pretty damn long timetable: 20 to 30 years or thereabouts," he says. "You have to remember it took almost 40 years to get the project that exists there today." It's premature to say how much any of the plans might cost, but ballpark estimates of about one billion dollars aren't uncommon. A series of public hearings on the proposals is scheduled to end next week. (In a related project, the Water Management District is studying ways to make a reinvigorated canal system more useful to communities in South Dade. See sidebar.)

"I think the good news is that the Corps was able to take a look at what they did over the last 50 years and say, 'We did a heck of a good job in flood control but created havoc in the natural systems and for urban water supply,'" comments Thomas Martin, executive director of the National Audubon Society's Everglades System Restoration Campaign. "And they realized that to fix it, they'd have to undo a lot of the work they already did." Of the various Corps plans under review, he says, the omnibus proposal "really does the job for restoration, and provides more water for agricultural users and urban water users."

The federal government is also devising other restoration projects to complement the long-term sweep of the canal-and-levee replumbing effort:

Late last month the Army Corps agreed to spend 10 years and $101 million to provide a more natural water-delivery system to Everglades National Park through Shark River Slough, the park's main waterway. As an indication of how slow the wheels of government turn, this deal has been a decade in the making. Work is scheduled to begin this year.

The Army Corps is putting bends back into the Kissimmee River. During its first go-round, the Corps transformed the once-meandering river into a ditch. The conversion drained 200,000 acres of marshland and destroyed wildlife habitat and a valuable watershed. But in 1992 Congress authorized the Corps and the Water Management District to reverse the earlier damage.

The Corps has launched a study of Biscayne Bay to investigate its freshwater needs and determine how it hydrologically and biologically fits into the larger South Florida ecosystem.

The Corps is also revamping the design and function of the C-111 Canal, which frames the southwest corner of Dade and runs eastward to Barnes Sound.

At the state level, the Water Management District is studying the idea of creating a buffer strip of marshes and reservoirs along the western boundaries of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. The buffer idea, proposed this past January by the National Audubon Society, is similar to one of the concepts under review by Appelbaum and his Corps replumbers. It would enable the storage of excess storm water that now runs via the canal system directly into bays and the Atlantic Ocean. It includes a strategy of "backpumping" water westward along certain canals to the buffer zone. The preserves would feed water through the subsurface Biscayne Aquifer to the Everglades and, to a lesser degree, would help to replenish the groundwater supply for urban wellfields. In addition, this zone would furnish habitat for wetland plants and animals and would maintain flood protection for urban and agricultural areas.

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