‘River of Grass’: Inside the quest to restore the Everglades

Original publication by Richard Mertens for csmonitor.com on 16 June 2022

A white ibis flies over the Everglades, where many bird species nest each year. Restoration efforts in Florida’s “river of grass” have begun to show signs of progress.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Eight hundred feet up, the helicopter banks hard to the left. The horizon disappears. Mark Cook, an avian biologist, peers out his side window at a small irregular patch of water below. It’s hardly distinguishable from innumerable other patches that lie in every direction, dark and shining amid a ragged expanse of brown marsh grass and green tree islands.

There’s one small difference: This patch is flecked with tiny specks of white, scattered like scraps of paper around a puddle.

“This year is pretty quiet,” Dr. Cook has been saying. “It’s not very good for wading birds.”

Now he looks more closely. The specks resolve into a variety of different birds, not all of them white: great egrets, snowy egrets, wood storks, white ibises, and pale pink roseate spoonbills, all standing in and around the shallow water. “We’ve got all sorts of birds,” he says. He opens his window and sticks his camera out, his spirits lifted, at least for now.  

For the birds of the Everglades, it’s not really been good for almost a century. First came the plume hunters of the 1800s and early 1900s, who shot birds by the thousands so that their feathers could adorn women’s hats in New York and London. Then came the speculators, developers, and visionaries who did more lasting damage, draining the marshes, logging the cypress swamps, digging canals, and building levees. They turned the Everglades into fields and housing tracts until half of it was gone. What’s more, says Paul Gray, a biologist with Audubon Florida, “The half of what’s there is all screwed up.” 

Birds look like white flecks from the air.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Today the state of Florida, the federal government, and many private organizations and individuals are working to bring the Everglades back – at least the half that’s still left. Everglades restoration became national policy in 2000 when Congress adopted the $7.8 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

Since then, lawsuits, political fighting, and dwindled funding have at times slowed progress. But in recent years restoration efforts have gained momentum. Some projects have been completed, and new ones are underway. Money is pouring in from both the state and federal governments, including $1.1 billion from the 2021 federal infrastructure bill. 

“The Everglades ball is rolling,” says Peter Frederick, a retired wildlife ecologist at the University of Florida and an expert on Everglades restoration. 

But will it work? Everglades restoration is a long-term undertaking. It’s expected to cost $23.2 billion and take until 2050 to finish. People often say it’s the largest ecological restoration project ever. “A lot could stop it,” says Dr. Frederick. A lot could go wrong. “It’s never been attempted before at this scale,” he says.

The Everglades system is unique in the world, an inextricable mix of water and vegetation resting on a shallow bed of porous limestone. More than just Everglades National Park, the Everglades once encompassed the whole southern third of the Florida Peninsula. The headwaters extended as far north as Orlando and Disney World. 

An old airboat trail cuts through the Everglades. The full restoration of the Everglades is expected to cost $23.2 billion and take until 2050.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

In those days, water that fell during Florida’s summer rains drained slowly south into Lake Okeechobee, a huge basin that in many places is hardly deeper than a suburban swimming pool. When the water was high, it lapped over the southern rim and flowed a hundred miles south in a broad sheet, through swamps and saw-grass marshes, wet prairies and sloughs, before finally discharging through mangrove swamps and coastal islands into the Gulf of Mexico. It was a rich and biologically diverse ecosystem governed by water. And the land was very flat. As Dr. Frederick likes to say, the Everglades has less topography than a pool table.

Today those Everglades are mostly gone. They’re no longer a single vast interconnected system of flowing water but a collection of divided and diminished parts – large shallow basins separated by levees and tied together by gates and canals, with some devoted to holding water, some to cleaning it, and others to conserving wildlife.

Lake Okeechobee is diked and polluted, and the swamps and saw-grass marshes that once received its overflowing waters are a checkerboard of sugar cane fields. The flow of water from north to south is much reduced, where it survives at all. For all its natural abundance, the Everglades today is an artificial landscape, a creature of engineering as much as topography and nature. 

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

The main challenge of restoration is hydrological. It’s to re-create the old pre-drainage conditions by delivering more clean water to the Everglades. It’s to bring back the old cycle of rising water in summer followed by a long drying out through the winter. It’s to restore, at least in part, the slow flow south.

The easiest way to accomplish this would be simply to pull the plug: tear down the dikes and levees, fill the canals, and send the engineers home. But restoration is also political, and it has always involved more than the Everglades. Its aim is also to provide clean water to coastal cities and estuaries and protect them from flooding. It’s to preserve and irrigate an agricultural district the size of Rhode Island that sits in the middle. These places enjoy constituencies far more influential in Tallahassee, the state capital, than any assembly of wading birds.

“They all say the best engineer is no engineer at all,” says Dr. Frederick. “Let nature do the work. The problem is that we now want to do more things with that water than we used to.”

Dr. Cook enjoys a stork’s-eye view of the Everglades. His weekly flights take him over both the good and the bad, the degraded and the only partly degraded. In some places, the long narrow islands of willows and other small trees, shaped over centuries by slowly moving water, have disappeared; in others they survive but without the flow. Still other areas are thick with cattails, a sign of nutrient pollution. Passing over one of these, Dr. Cook says, “We can’t get it back to what it once was, for maybe 100 to 200 years. But we can improve it for wildlife.”

Avian biologist Mark Cook counts birds by helicopter in the Everglades.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Birds are not necessarily the most important creatures here. But they are gaudy and easy to count, and biologists consider them reliable indicators of the Everglades’ overall health. They flourish best when conditions are closest to those of the past. A wet summer allows crayfish and small fish to thrive. When the dry season comes, water levels drop and the fish concentrate in pools. That’s when wading birds feast – and when they are most likely to nest. If the water is too low, or the fish are somehow lacking, the birds stay away. That’s how it was this year.

Sometimes there are surprises. In 2017, Hurricane Irma inundated the Everglades. The next spring, birds nested in numbers no one living had ever seen. To biologists, it seemed a vision of the old Everglades – and of what might still be.

“As an ecologist, you think, you get the water right and maybe they’ll come back,” Dr. Cook says.

He sees the challenge of restoration from all sides. He’s an observer, taking weekly monitoring flights to count birds at major nesting colonies and foraging spots. But he also takes part in experiments to find new strategies for restoration. Just east of the Everglades, for example, biologists have built four big basins to simulate Everglades conditions, complete with marsh grass, trees, fish, and even alligators. By manipulating the level and timing of water flowing into these basins, they try to understand better the hydrological conditions that work best for wildlife. In another place, they’ve removed the cattails from squares of degraded marsh to encourage the growth of saw grass and other Everglades vegetation. Dr. Cook points these out from above, bare patches in the shaggy marsh that seem to have been clipped by a careless barber. 

A heron chick sits inside its nest in the Everglades.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

“We’ve got a phenomenal response,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of native vegetation coming back. We’ve got seven times the amount of crayfish, prey fish, and a massive increase in wading birds.”

Maybe the trickiest part of Dr. Cook’s work is to advocate for the birds he studies. He works for the South Florida Water Management District, which controls the flow of water in much of the Everglades. Once a week, he and other biologists meet with operational managers to discuss where this water should go. There’s often not enough to go around, so the debate centers on the question of “pump here or pump there?” he says. There are always trade-offs. “Our goal is to be as courteous as possible and beg for water,” he says. “They help us out a lot.”

The problem is not just a limited supply, but also pollution. Water flowing south from Orlando, Disney World, and Lake Okeechobee can’t simply be diverted around the sugar cane fields into the marshes and swamps farther south. It carries a heavy load of agricultural nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorous, from central Florida.

These pollutants come not just from today’s agriculture, but from the dairy farms and citrus groves of the past. Much ends up in Lake Okeechobee, a place considered by many the watery but much abused heart of the Everglades. 

“What happens is that photosynthesis is not allowed now. The sun can’t reach submerged vegetation. You’re going to choke out the liquid heart of Florida.” – Ramon Iglesias, a harbor master on Lake Okeechobee, on how pollution and varying water levels are impairing the lake
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Ramon Iglesias, the son of a Cuban immigrant, is harbor master at the Roland & Mary Ann Martin Marina & Resort in Clewiston, near the southern end of Lake Okeechobee. His hat reads “Make Lake O. Great Again.” He keeps a quart jar of lake water and black bottom sediment on his desk, which he shakes for visitors to deliver his first lesson on the lake’s problems. “What happens is that photosynthesis is not allowed now,” he says, holding up a murky jar. “The sun can’t reach submerged vegetation. You’re going to choke out the liquid heart of Florida.”

Lake Okeechobee is famous for its fishing, especially for largemouth bass. But high water, pollutants, and sediment from the north have damaged the lake, killing aquatic vegetation, reducing marshes, and making it harder to find the bass. Mr. Iglesias leaves the jar on his desk and motors out into the lake. The water is just 4 or 5 feet deep, but in many places vegetation is sparse.

“See that patch of bulrushes?” he says, pointing to a stand of Kissimmee grass. “All that used to go way out here.” He gestures toward open water. “And remember, you lose it, it just sinks to the bottom, creating all sorts of problems.”

After much searching, Mr. Iglesias finds what he’s looking for: a patch of dark-green eel grass just below the surface. It’s an important but much beleaguered aquatic plant that traps sediments, filters nutrients, and provides habitat for insects and fish. He plunges a small galvanized pail down into the grass and, lifting it, pours clear water out into the bright sunlight. “Is that great, or what?” he says.

Marina manager Ramon Iglesias holds eel grass that grows beneath the water of Lake Okeechobee and filters out sediment.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Mr. Iglesias is a restoration skeptic. He says too much work has focused not on improving the Everglades but on keeping polluted water out of coastal estuaries, where it produces blooms of toxic algae and annoys coastal residents. He worries that a long effort by the Army Corps of Engineers to strengthen the dike around Lake Okeechobee will allow even higher water levels. It would be better, he says, to hold more water in the Everglades headwaters. The back of his hat reads “Slow the Flow.” 

One recent project aims to do just that. Last July, the state finished 22 years of work to restore the course of the Kissimmee River, which flows into Lake Okeechobee from the north. What engineers had previously straightened they made crooked again. They reopened flood plains. But this was just a first step. Much of the land in the headwaters is privately owned, especially by ranchers. And lately some of them have been changing how they manage their land, and the water on it.

Jimmy Wohl’s family owns the 5,200-acre Rafter T Ranch near Sebring, next to Arbuckle Creek. Like most Florida ranches, it’s a mix of the wild and the tame: forest, open pine flatwoods, prairie, and improved pasture. When his father bought the ranch in 1962, he wanted to make it easier to graze cattle during the wet season. So he built a levee and pumping station next to the creek. These kept the waterway from flooding and allowed him to drain his grazing lands more quickly.

“My idea is I’m going to work with Mother Nature’s cycles.” – Jimmy Wohl, a rancher in central Florida who removed a levee and stopped using a pumping station to dry out his land
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Mr. Wohl has reversed all that. He opened the levee so Arbuckle Creek can flood once again. He built a 120-acre retention pond that holds back water draining from the ranch and allows nutrient-rich sediments to settle. He’s dammed most of the ditches on the ranch. His aim is to keep water and nutrients on the land instead of sending them quickly downstream. “My idea is I’m going to work with Mother Nature’s cycles,” Mr. Wohl says. He says it works.

Supporters of Everglades restoration have found plenty of cause for hope lately. The Florida highway department finished removing old roadbed and raising a stretch of the Tamiami Trail, a highway across southern Florida that has long impeded the flow of water into Everglades National Park.

The state completed its restoration of the Kissimmee River. The Corps of Engineers finished a reservoir designed to curb polluted water flowing to the east coast. And in the far western edge of the Everglades, in the Picayune Strand State Forest, efforts to heal land that loggers and real estate developers drained decades ago are showing signs of progress. To undo the old damage, the state is plugging canals and using giant pumping stations to restore sheet flow across the land. 

“It was so dry back here before we did the restoration, not only didn’t we get invertebrates, we didn’t get any water,” says Mike Duevers, a retired ecologist who began working in the Picayune Strand in 1990s. “Now there’s water. There are invertebrates.” 

Probably the most highly anticipated project is a huge reservoir that will sit at the south end of the agricultural area. The reservoir will take water from Lake Okeechobee and send it into the southern Everglades. With a depth of 23 feet and an area of more than 16 square miles, it will sit like a giant soup bowl on what used to be sugar cane fields. The Corps of Engineers is getting ready to start construction next year. Meanwhile, the state has already started building a wetland next to it that will clean the water before it flows south. 

An aerial view shows the density of housing developments in West Palm Beach, Florida. A large percentage of the Everglades has been lost to housing and agricultural use over the decades.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

William Mitsch, one of the country’s foremost wetland ecologists, thinks it’s a mistake. Dr. Mitsch has long advocated the use of constructed wetlands to clean water polluted by agriculture. But he says the reservoir project includes far too little wetland to do the filtering. “All of the nutrients are going to make it a pea soup lake,” he says. 

Others are skeptical of an overall approach that relies so much on massive construction projects and large-scale engineering. Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist, criticizes what he calls “the extraordinary hubris” of big restoration projects undertaken by the same agencies and institutions that destroyed much of the Everglades.

“They believe engineers will fix anything,” he says. “They show remarkable hostility to any idea of letting the Everglades ecosystem go back to its natural state.” 

Meanwhile, Reed Noss, an ecologist who has written extensively on Florida conservation issues, points out a fact that many people overlook: Climate change is eating away at the Everglades. It’s already causing ecological havoc in Florida Bay, at the bottom of the Everglades, where a rising sea and the diminished flow of fresh water from the north have led to an intrusion of salt water and a decline in sea grass and aquatic life. If current trends continue, Dr. Noss says, large areas of Everglades National Park may be submerged by the end of the century.

“The southern Everglades will be basically be gone,” he says.

Researchers from the University of Florida – from right, coordinator Lindsey Garner, with field assistants Holly Coates and Michael Rickershauser – wade through mud to count birds and eggs during nesting season. They use a mirror on the end of a pole to view higher nests.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Few people know the Everglades as intimately as Lindsey Garner, a research coordinator with the University of Florida. Most weekday mornings in winter and spring, Ms. Garner may be found slogging through thigh-high mud while she and her small crew of young biologists count eggs and hatchlings on the tangled, remote tree islands where wading birds nest.

On a recent morning, they leave by airboat from a landing near Fort Lauderdale, when the sun is low and mist still hangs over the cattails and saw grass. They’re headed to a pair of remote bird colonies in an area called the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area. 

It’s a long trip that takes them first along canals and waterways, then across the marsh itself. The boats weave among patches of open water and skitter like giant insects over wet mud. While half the crew heads off to a nearby colony, Ms. Garner and two assistants approach a tree island with a bird colony known as Sixth Bridge. She says this has not been a good year for wading birds, but when the airboat falls silent their cries fill the air.

Ms. Garner and her assistants follow a trail of pink and blue ribbons toward the middle of the island. Each ribbon marks a nest where they have found eggs or chicks on previous visits. Some nests hold clutches of small pale eggs. Others have newly hatched chicks – herons, ibises, roseate spoonbills.

Holly Coates, one of the assistants, peers into a nest and exclaims, “Spoonies!” A tiny chick with delicate pink skin lies helpless among the shards of a broken shell. “Very cute,” says Ms. Coates. “It probably hatched yesterday.”

Other chicks, just a few days older, are full of spunk. Their yellow bills gape, and their fierce black and yellow eyes shine. Their hairlike feathers, sticking out in all directions, give them a wild look. At one nest, a trio of gawky heron chicks hiss and lunge when Ms. Garner reaches out her hand. “They’re pretty feisty,” she says.

Three eggs sit in a nest in the Everglades.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

She keeps track of each nest in her notebook. One nest is empty, and she looks it up. “Three spoonies,” she says. “They’ve flown away. They’ve made it.”

Others haven’t. Nest 499 is also empty, and Ms. Garner glances at her notes. “That’s failed,” she says. At Nest 233, Michael Rickershauser, the other assistant, finds only a clump of decaying white fluff. “One dead,” he says. 

The going is tough. The mud sucks at their legs as they stumble forward, pushing through low willow trees. “It’s like chocolate pudding,” Ms. Garner says. The air grows heavy and warm. Adult birds squawk and flap overhead. 

Despite the difficulties, Ms. Garner and her crew approach their work with both scientific rigor and real affection. Ms. Garner describes herself as a visitor to a bird metropolis. “I get to walk through and see what’s going on,” she says. “They’re so busy, and so adorable.”

Finally they reach the middle. It’s taken them an hour to go a quarter of a mile. “Now we’ve got to get out of here as fast as we can,” Ms. Garner says.

Later, back at the landing, she seems hopeful. “Even though 50% of the Everglades is gone, if we can get the water right, it can still support a lot of wading birds,” she says. Then, as if explaining why restoring the Everglades is worth so much trouble, she adds, “When you’re out here, you see the patterns, the serenity. You get a lot of appreciation for what’s here.”

Related Articles

Climate scientists are working with indigenous tribes

When the warm nights used to come each summer, Frank Ettawageshik would spend most of his time outdoors, sleeping outside, right o...

15 November • 8 min read

A sinking community turns to oyster shells – and a tax – for safety

The terrain of southeast Louisiana has been drastically altered by the combination of hurricanes, sea-level rise, and the construc...

06 October • 6 min read

This fishing gear can help save whales. What will it take for fishermen to use it?

Fishing boats would normally still be unloading Dungeness crabs at San Francisco's fisherman's wharf in May. This year, the docks ...

28 June • 9 min read

Meet Peru’s unsung hero of the Pómac Forest

While Mr. Llauce credits others, he is an unsung hero of the Pómac Forest, a dense tangle of algarrobo and mesquite that shelters...

22 May • 5 min read