Everglades restoration strategy must adapt to new threat: rising sea levels

For decades, South Florida water managers struggling to reverse the damage done to the Everglades by badly-engineered flood control strategies.

The restoration ecologists have done their best to replicate nature, timing the flow of water into marshes with the state’s wet and dry seasons.

But now researchers looking at 16 years of data that say that climate change-related sea rise is undoing those restoration efforts. To save the marshes, the strategy needs to change.

Sea level rise “has been gaining momentum. It’s increasing at a faster rate since 2012,” said René Price, a Florida International University (FIU) hydrogeologist and co-author of a new study that evaluates the role rising seas in ecological restoration outcomes. “So it’s almost imperative that it be considered now.”

Everglades restoration was supposed to fix the damage done by South Florida’s massive flood control system that began draining swampland in the late 1940s. But when a plan was drawn up in 2000 to send more water into marshes, Biscayne Bay and Florida Bay, it failed to anticipate the dramatic impacts of climate change.

Rising sea levels have already started to fray the coastal fringe, with mangroves marching inland and freshwater sawgrass shrinking. It’s not unusual now to see small stands of saltwater mangroves popping up in marshes. As sawgrass dies, the peat built up over eons starts to collapse, lowering the ground level.

Scientists now believe the southern Everglades have reached a tipping point. What’s been less clear is which to blame: about five inches of sea rise since 2001 in the southern Everglades or prolonged damage from flood control.

Featured photo of anhinga in Everglades by Storm Cunningham.

See Tampa Bay Times article by Jenny Staletovich.

See FIU’s Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research website.

Download full report “Effects of sea-level rise and freshwater management on long-term water levels and water quality in the Florida Coastal Everglades”.

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