Swamp and Circumstance

Planners hope the Natural System Model can help restore the Everglades. But will it survive politics?

Jayantha Obeysekera is showing the model of the current system at work. As the model runs on his computer, he maintains an ongoing commentary as the years flash by: '69 was a wet year, '71 is drying out, '89 was a very dry year, the '90s are wetter. The water sent through the system tends to pond in the conservation areas rather than flow, he says.

"You can see the stacking of water behind levees and the drying out of certain areas in the northeast Shark Slough," he says pointing to the gradients of color on the right-hand side of the screen that shows the managed system.

Environmentalists believe the answer to this ecologically devastating process is not just to return the area to historic water levels, but to open up the system and let it flow. They fear the current plan is really about continued water supply for urban development and agriculture.

"Are we paying for restoration? That is the key question," asks John Marshall, an environmental activist and nephew of the celebrated South Florida ecologist Arthur Marshall. "More water [alone] will kill more habitat. When it rained, it flowed. Now when it rains, it drains or is compounded."

It is late May in the Embassy Suites hotel in Boca Raton. Marshall has come for an Everglades restoration science forum. (In early June the forum, which was designed to bring policymakers and scientists closer together, made headlines. One of the organizers, a scientist, was fired in part for badmouthing policymakers there.)

Marshall has taken a room on the hotel's third floor and is holding court with other environmentalists. On this day they are talking intensely with the GAO federal auditors. As the two GAO officials slip out of the room, Marshall begs them to keep probing the Restudy effort.

He does not believe the plan will find easy acceptance in Congress.
"It is going to be a fur ball for about six months," he says.
Currently Marshall and other environmentalists are screaming foul. They say policymakers directing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have sold them out: The planners have ducked allocating enough land to ensure habitat for animals and space for water movement, and instead have offered untested technology to store water in expensive deep-injection wells. The motivation, these environmentalists say, is to ensure water supply for urban growth, not for the environment.

Jack Moller, a hunter and activist, is less worried about the technology as long as storage is provided. If it's not, then the 52-year-old sportsman fears that under NSM-predicted water levels, the water-conservation areas where he has roamed for 45 years will continue to die from flooding.

Moller first started exploring the Glades as a six-year-old boy with his father. When they wanted to get into the Everglades, they parked their car at the Opa-locka city hall, which was in those days on the edge of the system.

This past January Moller retired as an administrator for the Miami-Dade County school system. These days he devotes much of his time to Everglades restoration. "I suppose I am stupid and stubborn," he says self-deprecatingly of his often successful efforts to question scientists and direct politicians.

Moller and his wife have a hunting cabin in Big Cypress National Preserve, where they spend about 100 days a year. Moller is clear-eyed in his view of the future of South Florida. It will be impossible to stop people from coming. The only way to protect the land for the environment is to buy it for the public. Casting a skeptical eye at many of the national environmental groups, he suggests only half-jokingly that the best thing they can do for the ecosystem is buy two houses and then leave. He has seen enough governmental bungling to be somewhat distrustful of the stock answer to how problems in the Restudy will be resolved. According to the plan, scientists will make changes to the Restudy as more accurate information is gathered, through what they call "adaptive management." Moller asks the obvious question: "Adaptive management for what system: the urban or the natural?"

If Moller is leery of the idea of adaptive management, it is unlikely Congress will greet it with any more enthusiasm.

"I know for a fact that Congress doesn't like to hear the words 'adaptive management,'" says Dan Cary, who heads up the water management district's Everglades restoration planning department where the modelers work. "It makes them uncomfortable because it sounds like we are going to spend a lot of money and we might be wrong and they don't want to hear about it," he comments.

Cary says that though it might be alarming to outsiders, adaptive management is simply the scientific method where hypotheses are challenged until proven. "I don't worry about it too much because it is healthy," he insists. "In fact you have to have it to improve the model."

Certainly in the case of the NSM, science continues to evolve. Jayantha Obeysekera promises that McVoy's detailed soil research will be incorporated into a new version of the model fairly soon.

The modelers are sitting in Obeysekera's office at the South Florida Water Management District, looking at the maps of the Everglades running on the computer screen. What appears simple and logical is in fact dependent on countless variables and instantaneous mathematical decisions. The technology is astounding but ultimately cannot take the place of hard policy decisions, the modelers say.

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