The Everglades are dying. An alliance between Biden and Republicans could save them

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For years environmental groups warned the Florida Everglades, a vast 1.5m-acre (607,000-hectare) subtropical preserve, may be doomed to extinction. Agricultural pollution, saltwater intrusion and rampant real estate development had turned the waterways toxic and the state’s environmental landmark was left to slowly choke to death. Perhaps until now.

A sweeping Everglades restoration effort decades in the making is finally seeing renewed optimism thanks to a cast of unlikely champions: Florida state Republicans. In April, Ron DeSantis, the governor, signed an agreement with the US Army Corps of Engineers to build a massive $3.4bn reservoir west of Palm Beach, which would help restore the flow of freshwater to the Everglades. Other state-funded projects to revitalize the region’s delicate ecosystem are already months ahead of schedule, DeSantis said.

And now, the Everglades have a new ally in the White House. Last week Joe Biden included $350m in his 2022 budget proposal to apply toward environmental restoration efforts in south Florida, a $100m increase from the previous year. But will it be enough? Florida’s congressional delegation, led by Republican Senator Marco Rubio, had previously requested more than double that amount in federal assistance, while local advocates argued the price tag should be closer to $3bn over four years.

There’s also a possibility that Congress could add more federal dollars to Biden’s proposal, especially now that five members of Florida’s congressional delegation sit on appropriations committees, said Chauncey Goss, board chairman of the South Florida water management district, which oversees the state’s Everglades infrastructure projects.

“The $725m would be better, but I am not going to laugh at the $350m,” Goss said. “It’s not exactly what we wanted, but it is really up to Congress.”

Still, Biden’s proposed funding is substantial, Goss added, and will allow the army corps to begin work on the federal portion of the reservoir project, such as building new canals from Lake Okeechobee. “This will definitely keep the ball moving down the field,” he said.

An alligator floats in an algae bloom in Lake Okeechobee on 26 April.

Efforts to restore the Everglades’ unique ecosystem hinge on Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest body of freshwater located near Palm Beach county. The lake has been used as a dumping ground for farmland pollutants for several decades, allowing high concentrations of phosphorus and nitrates from fertilizers to leach into the soil. During heavy rains and storms, runoff water from the tainted soil flows into dozens of intersecting canals that end up in Lake Okeechobee. To avoid the lake from overflowing and bursting its levee during storm events, the tainted water is often released into rivers that flow to the ocean and the Everglades.

The goal is to treat overflowing dirty water from Lake Okeechobee so that by the time it reaches the Everglades, the water is mostly free of the nutrients that cause toxic algae blooms. Construction is under way to create a network of marshes spanning 6,500 acres made up of non-native plants that act as a natural filtration system to suck up fertilizer nutrients from contaminated water, which will flow from the planned 10,500-acre reservoir that will store excess water that builds up in Lake Okeechobee during rainy months of the year.

John Kominoski, a biological sciences professor at the Florida International University Institute of Environment, says the reservoir project will probably play a critical role in alleviating overflows in Lake Okeechobee during Florida’s wet season, which will be used to replenish the Everglades.

“This reservoir is very important for Everglades restoration,” he added. “It will enable the clean-up of more of the dirty water and hold more of the water longer as opposed to dumping it out to sea.”

Still, environmental advocates remain split about whether the Everglades restoration projects are enough. Some worry the reservoir and the marshes will not have a meaningful impact in reversing decades of pollution and water diversion. Others are concerned the restoration could be upended by recent attempts to bring industrial and commercial activities closer to the ecosystem. Eve Samples, executive director of the advocacy group Friends of the Everglades, said the 17,000-acre footprint for the reservoir and the adjoining wetlands are not large enough to achieve the amount of water flow to keep the River of Grass healthy.

“When the project was first envisioned 20 years ago, it was in the neighborhood of 60,000 acres,” Samples said. “In 2017, when we had the toxic algae blooms on the east and west sides of the state, the project got accelerated. But by the time the bill was approved, the reservoir and the wetlands portion were shrunken down to 17,000 acres.”

One key reason the reservoir was scaled back was due to politics. The state legislature barred the South Florida water management district from using eminent domain to acquire sugar cane fields and farms. To compensate for the lost acreage, state and federal environmental agencies made the reservoir 23ft (7 metres) deep with 37ft (11 metres) high retention walls.

“This project is a shadow of its former self,” Samples said. “It doesn’t look like anything in nature.”

Another key worry is the compounding threat brought by climate change, Kominoski says. Weather changes in recent years have severely impacted the transition from Florida’s dry season to the wet season, which typically begins in late April and lasts until mid-November. “Last year, the wet season didn’t start until late May,” he said. “We are losing about a month of our wet season window.”

As a result, mangroves and other plant life that help filter pollutants are drying out and dying. “We need water flowing so the wetlands don’t dry out,” he said.

Jason Totoiu, senior attorney with the Center of Biological Diversity’s south-east division, agreed, noting the restoration projects like the $3.4bn reservoir and marshes can significantly increase the flow of freshwater to the Everglades as long as farm pollutants are effectively filtered out. Increasingly hotter summers are threatening large swaths of the Everglades, Totoiu said. “We are seeing an increasing amount of saltwater that can dramatically alter natural habitats,” he said. “Rising sea levels could be a tipping point there.”

The reservoir project and other Everglades infrastructure proposals are about more than just revitalizing Florida’s most important ecosystem, added Julie Wraithmell, executive director of Audubon Florida. “It is also about protecting our vibrant tourism economy, the drinking water for all residents and visitors and against sea level rise,” she said. “With so many projects lined up, it makes sense to strike while the iron is hot.”

Fighting to save the Everglades has been a daunting endeavor for many decades, but Republican and Democratic elected officials on the local, state and federal levels are now putting in the work, Wraithmell added.

“Whether you are far left or far right, everyone has a vested interest in dealing with the effects of climate change,” she said. “There is great reason for optimism.”

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