Running on Empty

A century of messing with Mother Nature has robbed the Everglades of too much water. Now we don't even have enough for ourselves.

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.

According to Tommy Strowd, a Water Management District engineer and project manager for the so-called East Coast Buffer concept, his team is looking at an area of about 59,000 acres stretching from east of Card Sound Road, west to Everglades National Park, and north to mid-Palm Beach County, ranging in width from a few thousand feet to about five miles. The estimated price tag for the project A land acquisition and capital costs A totals about $993 million. On October 12, Strowd presented a feasibility study to a joint meeting of the Water Management District's governing board and the county commissions from Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach. The reaction was mixed: Some elected officials were frustrated with the lack of available specifics; some environmentalists expressed concern that the district proposes to permit development in certain areas where the aquifer is too porous to support marshes and reservoirs. The district's governing board will decide next month whether to continue with the project.

In a related plan that potentially could be integrated into the East Coast Buffer concept, an interdisciplinary committee of government officials, environmentalists, and rock-mining executives is studying a proposal to convert a string of limestone mines in Northwest Dade into a freshwater lake system. (The mines in that area are some of the most productive in the U.S., yielding roughly half of all the rock and sand used to make concrete, asphalt, and highway foundations in Florida, says Paul Larsen, an environmental engineer working with the mining industry on the plan.) Several years ago a coalition of miners presented the Lake Belt Plan to the state legislature.

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