Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Everglades restoration, rural recreation, & rooftop solar

For millennia, fresh water flowed south from central Florida through marshes and waterways into Lake Okeechobee. It overflowed into the Everglades, creating the “River of Grass,” a broad, shallow, slow-moving river that twists and turns through freshwater ponds, forested uplands and prairies toward the Florida Bay and Gulf of Mexico.

In the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers altered that route, cutting water supply to the Everglades by diking Lake Okeechobee. Dams were built to divert water for farm irrigation and flood prevention. Now, rather than flowing water, a series of lakes limit the amount of water in the Everglades, which harmed its ecology.Nutrient pollution from the massive sugar industry upstate has polluted Lake Okeechobee, tributaries, and the ocean, lowering water quality.

To restore the natural flow of water, Florida created Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in 2000 in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers. Sixty-eight projects were proposed throughout South Florida. The law required a team of scientists to monitor progress on the project and write a report every other year. The timeline for the project was 38 years, but because it was going so slow, in 2011 Florida created the Central Everglades Planning Project to prioritize tasks and speed up the process.

Now, the South Florida Water Management District is threatening to cut ties with the independent committee of scientists comprised of researchers from the National Academies of Science. The district’s leader wants to pull more than $300,000 in funding over concerns that the committee isn’t focusing enough about water quality, salinity levels, and other science that will inform restoration efforts, and spending too much time on climate change and legal issues. “Your panel of distinguished scientists [is] being led down a path of unscientific meddling,” district director Peter Antonacci wrote in a recent letter. There’s a committee meeting in August to workshop the plans, but Antonacci said district employees won’t attend.

This is just the latest scuffle between scientists and the district over the restoration plans. Things have been growing more tense since last year, when the scientific committee reported to Congress that climate change is making restoration efforts more difficult. The scientists suggested adding more reservoirs and other water storage to Everglades restoration plans. They also recommended expanding study areas to update the plan, which they said should include considerations about climate change, endangered species, and sea level rise.

Less than 18 percent of the project has been funded, though it’s over halfway through the 38-year timeframe originally allotted. The scientists expressed concern about the slow movement of the project, which is becoming more urgent as the climate changes. Seawater is contaminating the Everglades and the porous Biscayne limestone aquifer that provides drinking water to 90 million people. Adding freshwater helps dilute saltwater creeping in from rising seas, in addition to reviving the ecosystem and supporting wildlife.

Antonacci doesn’t want scientists informing these types of decisions. When he publicly announced he would stop cooperating with scientists, he told the committee to “please stick to [their] knitting.” Environmental groups say the move stems from climate denial. Antonacci was appointed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has expressed doubts about climate change science and at one point even banned the phrase “climate change” in agency meetings. The district refutes this claim, saying the decision is about federal overreach.

Then, yesterday, Antonacci was chosen by the governor to lead Enterprise Florida, a business recruitment agency. If he leaves, it’s unclear what it will mean for the water management district or the long-delayed Everglades plan.

Few places are as vulnerable to sea level rise as South Florida, yet state leaders are still trying to debunk the science. The situation is so dire that researchers have repeatedly pleaded with President Trump to support funding for climate science. They haven’t received a response. As the state is increasingly inundated with flooding, lawmakers stay at an impasse, unable to move forward with substantial restoration or adaptation because of climate change politics. There’s no telling what direction the Everglades plan could take, who would oversee it, or what Congress could do with it. Like so many environmental projects and regulations these days — both at the federal and state level — this one keeps getting tossed into the air without much regard for where it will land.

Stories worth your time

My friend, photojournalist Josh Mauser, and I went on a day hike with a hiking club from Breathitt County, Kentucky, one of the unhealthiest places in America. The director of the local library started the club to get rural people healthier and to help introduce them to public lands. I wrote about it for Outside and Josh took some great photos that showcase the motley crew we trudged along the trail with.

Justin Nobel’s essay for Longreads offers a glimpse into the almost incomprehensible number of environmental catastrophes in Louisiana. An example: “The risk of cancer in Reserve, a community founded by freed slaves, is 800 times the national average, making the community, by one EPA metric, the most carcinogenic census tract in America—the cause is a DuPont/Denka chemical plant adjacent to the town that annually spews 250,000 pounds of the likely carcinogen chloroprene into the air. If you think the situation in Flint is bad, there are approximately 400 public water systems in Louisiana with lead or other hazardous substances leaching into the drinking water.”

This Center for Public Integrity investigation and infographics show how the natural gas boom will stem from Appalachia. About 2,500 miles of pipelines are being constructed to send gas to markets in every direction.

News flying under the radar 

Climate change politics in Alabama haven’t changed much over the years, but it’s shaping up to be an important aspect of the state Senate race since Alabama is seeing major changes in precipitation and higher temperatures.

Virginia’s Supreme Court recently upheld a law allowing natural gas companies to survey private property, but legal experts say landowners could still block pipeline construction.

In South Miami, a 16-year-old young woman helped write an ordinance that would require new homes to have rooftop solar installations. Now she’s trying to push similar measures around the state.

A Tennessee Congressman is pushing for more information about excessive levels of arsenic and lead in groundwater underneath a Tennessee Valley Authority coal plant.