A Valued Ecosystem – America’s Everglades Wetlands

The subtropical Everglades region is the only wetland region of its kind in the United States. It covers much of South Florida and comprises of more than 4,000 square miles. The Everglades watershed is Lake Okeechobee, part of a massive drainage basin that extends across 11,000 square miles. The lake has an unusually large surface area of nearly 730 square miles and yet has a relatively shallow depth of only around 12 feet on average. The land around the water is highly variable and consists of landscapes like pinelands, wetland tree islands, saw grass marshes, prairies, mangrove swamps, coastal marine waters and freshwater marshes. These areas provide a unique habitat and home to several species of wildlife and plants, many of which are endangered.

Turtle on the South Florida Everglades (Photo: Flickr)

Turtle on the South Florida Everglades (Photo: Flickr)

The Everglades: Why it is Important

The Everglades is not only recognized as one of the most treasured landscapes in the world, it’s unique ecosystem has also helped shape the economy, and the natural heritage and culture of Florida and the United States. The region is vital to its wildlife, especially the wading birds and endangered species like the American crocodile, the wood stork, the snail kite and the Florida panther.

Issues With Water Quality

Since the 1960s the quality of the water in the Everglades has degraded. This is mainly because of phosphorus runoff due to agricultural practices. Because the animal and plant communities of the Everglades thrive under conditions with low phosphorus levels, increased levels cause issues like:

  • Loss of water dissolved oxygen required by fish to live
  • Loss of naturally occurring algae required as food source
  • Loss of open water areas where birds feed because of changes in indigenous plants

By the 1990s more than 40,000 acres of the Everglades was understood to have been impacted and extensive efforts to stop the degradation were launched. Farmers implemented better practices with the goal of reducing phosphorus from water before it leaves their farms, and governments constructed thousands of acres of Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs) that eliminate phosphorus before the water is released into the Everglades. The government initiative cost as much as US$1 billion to implement and has been successful at maintaining low phosphorus levels of around 10 parts per billion.

The South Florida Everglades Restoration Project

The restoration project is a collaborative effort between the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and other agencies. The project involves 55 sub-projects – some small scale and others that require years of research, extensive planning and large budgets. The goals of the project are:

  • To create a science-based limit for phosphorus content in water
  • To add 6,500 additional acres of STAs
  • To create 110,000 acres/feet of flow equalization basins that steadily release water to the STAs for maximum performance
  • To create an enforceable schedule of compliance
  • To implement a robust research and monitoring plant to ensure STA performance

Regular meetings are scheduled with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the EPA and technical representatives from stakeholders to ensure progress of the restoration projects.