Friday, November 18, 2011

At a Loss

Water management in south Florida has been at the forefront of environmental and political debate ever since the turn of the twentieth century. Surprisingly, even today with all that we know of the Everglades and its significance to Florida and imperiled watersheds all around the world, we're still struggling to get it right.

This September the two agencies in charge of Everglades restoration efforts, the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers, slashed their funding of scientific monitoring programs by 60%. These monitoring programs help gauge the effectiveness of Everglades restoration and are the foundation in which water management policies are shaped. Without the science, we're essentially losing the cause-and-effect data that tells us if our restoration projects are working. As you know, the Army Corps and SFWMD's funding comes from taxes, from us. By the power vested in Gov Rick Scott, the budget cuts were designed to cut taxes and reduce state spending, so he looked for places to trim the fat; somewhere no one would notice. But instead, he chose the backbone fund of Everglades restoration.

The taxes to be cut are taxes on homeowners. If you have a home valued at $100,000 then you are saving $15 a year from this monumental tax break. I know what you're thinking, "holy crap, what am I going to do with all this extra cash now?!" The possibilities are endless. At the cost of science and hundreds of jobs, we can all enjoy a few more lattes from Starbucks or that leopard-print Snuggie we've always wanted.

The truth is that we've been here before and it didn't work. We tried water management without monitoring programs, which is why we're now stuck spending 14 billion dollars to bring our Everglades back. History alone should teach us that we're far from understanding the complexities of mother nature, but the more we invest in the comprehensive science, the better our understanding will be, and the more informed we will become when making decisions for our people and environment.

A satellite-tagged crocodile, one of Frank Mazzotti's, who's program was eliminated after the budget cuts.

To give you a little perspective, the overall price tag of Everglades restoration is $14,000,000,000. With these cuts, $4,000,000 will be taken away and thus the funding to many key programs such as fish monitoring, crocodile and alligator research, submerged aquatic vegetation studies, and several other water quality programs. For such invaluable data, it's merely a drop in the budget bucket, not even one percent. By definition these monitoring programs are the only way we have of knowing for sure if the other $13,996,000,000 we spend is going to good use. 

A plug on East Cape Canal at Cape Sable keeps saltwater from pushing further
into the freshwater Everglades ecosystem. Tavernier Science Center's sample site
was just beyond the plug, but no longer receives funding to conduct research there.

We are one of the lucky few at Tavernier Science Center. Well, lucky in that we still have jobs. Our budget also suffered from the cuts and we lost nearly half of our sample sites. We closed sites at Cape Sable where they just finished putting in plugs to stop saltwater encroachment, so we won't know if they're working to restore the freshwater ecosystem. We were also forced to close sites in the Biscayne Bay area and northeastern Florida Bay. No longer will we have access to helicopters, so last month we had to decommission four locations hauling all of our equipment out in a swing-loaded cargo net. State director of research, Jerry Lorenz, decided to take a day away from the office to help breakdown our Rocky Creek site, and see it for the last time.

He and I flew out early in the morning over the ridge and sloughs of the southern Everglades. Restricted water flows had started to show their subtle but detrimental affect on the landscape, now clearly visible at 800 feet. He looked on, despondent and removed, like an artist stepping back from the canvas to see strokes and details incongruous with his original vision.

Jerry Lorenz stands with a boat loaded up with nearly 500 pounds of re-bar, PVC, lumber,
and hydrological equipment, all to be sent back to the office in Tavernier. 

When we landed at Rocky Creek and hauled away the first load of boardwalks, Jerry had trouble finding the words to express his disappointment. It took days to build the site, months to scout it out, and years to figure out its place in the greater watershed. After a matter of hours, it was completely gone. The helicopter carried out the last load and we sat silent, tired, and wet under the dissipating hum of the propeller. Jerry looked on as it faded into the horizon, but stayed watching, perhaps hoping that it would turn back around. 

A deep sigh from a frail resolve was the only audible sound I heard as we crouched in the water, quietly waiting to be picked up. Disappointing is hardly the word. Heartbreaking is more appropriate. I could see it in his face and weighing on his shoulders. Jerry and a number of other biologists have invested their lives protecting the Everglades through science and reason. Ever since restoration became a statewide conversation they have been Florida's most trusted voices. Now their throats are hoarse from screaming into deaf and often indifferent ears.


  1. Thank you Mac for publicizing this injustice to the people and landscape of south Florida.

  2. Well, I'm in a position where it's really just an obligation. It's so hard to see all of this going on behind the scenes without wanting to do something about it. Luckily I have a camera and job that puts me right in the middle. Thanks for caring!