There are signs of a recovery in the Everglades. Long way to go, but “trend in the right direction”

After decades of planning and begging for political support and dollars to restore the Everglades, there is increasing evidence that the massive multibillion-dollar effort is beginning to “get the water right.”

The federal and state authorities commissioned to do this have long used this to measure success. The goal sounds deceptively simple, but it is immensely complicated, as not only must more water be funneled through the parched southern Everglades and into the Florida Bay, but also ensuring that adjacent communities are not flooded in the process.

The most encouraging indicator: Wildlife, the yardstick of a healthy Glades, has recovered in many areas of the system.

Bird life was abundant during an Everglades Foundation-led tour of state wetlands north of the park on Friday. And scientists are seeing rising rates of birds and alligators nesting in Shark River Slough to the south, where Everglades Foundation chief scientist Steve Davis said, “We’re seeing historic flow rates.”

But water executives also point out how the partially revised system performed during Hurricane Ian’s major recent test. The powerful hurricane claimed more than a hundred lives, but it also dropped copious amounts of rain across the state, including every corner of the Everglades.

Jose A. Iglesias


El Nuevo Herald

Sawgrass reflecting off the water in the Florida Everglades.

To the north, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently completed restoring the Kissimmee River to its natural meandering state, the river has absorbed and cleaned up much of the floodwater. A smaller amount then flowed into Lake Okeechobee, the liquid and too-polluted heart of the Everglades system. A newly built reservoir near the St. Lucie River soaked up even more rain, meaning less dirty lake water was dumped east and west — releases that have regularly sparked fish-killing algal explosions on both shores.

“It has reduced those discharges to less than a week when it would otherwise have taken weeks. This type of project works,” said Drew Bartlett, the executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency that directs restoration efforts, during a presentation at the Everglades Coalition Conference last month.

Farther south, a now-elevated section of the Tamiami Trail allows more water to flow into parts of Everglades National Park that have long been cut off from the natural flow of the Grass River. But newly installed underground steel walls protecting the community of Las Palmas, a neighborhood just on the edge of the park, kept homes and streets dry even as water flowed south — unlike in previous years.

“That didn’t happen with this underground wall this year,” Bartlett said. “The Walls, Game Changer. Raising Tamiami Trail, game changer. It all works and it’s very exciting.”

Storing more water and directing it to the right places will also make the Everglades and South Florida more resilient to the projected impacts of climate change, including increased sea rise and the potential for wetter hurricanes.

But the most important signs can be seen in the natural landscape of the north-east Shark River Slough.

Areas that used to be bone dry and prone to wildfires are finally staying year-round as they were before dredging and canals siphoned off so much water. On a map Bartlett showed during his presentation, the difference was stark. A green trail marking water levels above ground now cuts through the deep red (anhydrous) areas of the park during the dry season.

    This graph showing the average water depth during the dry season in the southern Everglades shows a recent change
This graph, which shows the average water depth during the dry season in the southern Everglades, shows a recent change, above-ground water flow through Shark River Slough, thanks to new restoration efforts. Red and yellow spots indicate water levels below ground, while green and blue spots represent water up to one meter above ground.

“You haven’t seen the green in the last 20 years that you’ve seen in the dry season,” Bartlett said. “This is the grass river. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

The numbers support Bartlett.

Col. James Booth, commander of the Jacksonville District of the Army Corps of Engineers, said the agency has been setting records and near records for water flow under the Tamiami Trail for years running.

“Of course we want to go here. We want to see the benefits for the Everglades and the environment, but also the resilience and benefits for the human environment,” he told the crowd gathered at the Everglades Coalition Conference.

Melodie Naja, director of the National Park Service’s South Florida Natural Resources Center, said water levels in the northeast portion of the Shark River Slough are up to two feet high.

“That’s unthinkable in the park,” she said during her presentation.

Naja also credits some of the positive signs she’s seen at the park to the new strategy of bringing water to the park, first implemented five years ago. While she said it would take 10 years to say for sure if the new modified water strategy had an impact on the park, Naja said she was encouraged by what she saw.

Alligator nests are popping up in more and more corners of the park, a sign that they like the higher water levels. And nesting bird colonies are slowly moving south again, having moved inland dramatically when the Glades first began to dry out.

Another good sign: the soggy, muddy peat soil that lives beneath the sawgrass fields in some parts of the Everglades remains wet. When the park starves for water, these areas get crusty. Dry peat releases carbon dioxide, which accelerates climate change. And these dry patches can easily catch fire, leading to widespread and destructive wildfires.

This is all great news. Are we already there? No. We are not fully recovered. But we’re headed in the right direction,” said Naja. “We have more and deeper water in the right place in the park.”

A heron prepares to take flight in the Florida Everglades

Jose A. Iglesias


El Nuevo Herald

A heron prepares to take off on February 24, 2023 in the Florida Everglades.

For Davis with the Everglades Foundation, the progress made in restoring the Everglades in just the last decade has been far more dramatic than the previous 20 years. And with new advances coming this summer with the elevation of the Old Ingraham Highway and a new water management system for Lake Okeechobee that will direct more water south, Davis expects the improvements to continue.

“It’s incredible to think that we’ve only made monumental progress since the Tamiami Trail in 2012,” Davis told the Herald. “These projects are not additive in their effect, they are multiplicative.”

But while proponents are excited to finally see the fruits of their labor, not every corner of the Everglades is showing improvement.

“We’ve seen a lot of success in the Southern and Eastern Everglades, but the Western Everglades is huge and a huge, huge part of the entire Everglades system in Florida,” Curtis Osceola, chief of staff for the Miccosukee Tribe, told the Everglades Coalition Conference.

Osceola urged advocates to focus native voices on restoring the Everglades. One of his tribe’s priorities is expedited action in restoring the western Everglades, where their reservation is located.

The Army Corps of Engineers has yet to finalize its plan for the Western Glades, and it could be years before the region sees federal dollars for the necessary projects.

“The tribe is now in a leadership position,” Osceola said. “You are ready to work. They’re ready to take on that political advocacy, and they’re ready to lead where to put those shovels in the ground.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to report on the state’s impacts of climate change.

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