EVERGLADES:

Restoration's momentum challenged by growing costs -- scientists

The multibillion-dollar effort to restore the Everglades has made slow but tangible progress in recent years, but scientists today warned that sustaining momentum will be among the top challenges as costs continue to rise.

The National Research Council, in its third biennial report to Congress on the progress of the world's largest environmental restoration effort, today struck a brighter note than in its last report in 2008.

Progress at the time was "scant," the council said then, and the overall effort "bogged down" in procedural matters.

"They're beginning to pick up momentum," said Frank Davis, the report's committee chairman and professor at University of California, Santa Barbara. "At the same time, the Everglades continues to decline, so it's really more important than ever to maintain and build momentum."

Construction has begun on four of the 68 projects called for in a massive, now-$13 billion restoration plan Congress approved in 2000, the report says. The federal government, which agreed at the time to split the cost 50-50 with the state of Florida, has increased spending, offsetting declines in state spending as the economy has tumbled. State-federal cooperation has also improved, resulting in better headway and less bureaucratic bickering, according to the report.

"They've been able to come together," said William Graf, who chaired the report committee in 2008 and leads the geography department at the University of South Carolina. "Maintaining that coalition, I think, is the big challenge in the face of changing costs, reduced funding and an acrimonious political environment. We need to hold it together."

To date, Florida has invested more than $2.4 billion in the state-federal restoration, outspending its federal partners. That includes $1.8 billion dollars for water quality projects like artificial, pollution-filtering marshes that scientists say will need to be expanded -- echoing recent orders from U.S. EPA -- in order to meet pollution cleanup goals that continue to elude.

Florida officials concurred with the findings and said the state "remains committed to continue the important restoration work," in a joint statement issued this morning by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District, the local agency overseeing restoration for Florida.

The report spotlights certain successes in the effort to replumb the River of Grass. The Everglades once covered 6,000 square miles but have been reduced to half that size over the past 60 years by the 1,700 miles of canals and levees installed to make room for farms and urban development.

One success highlighted is the Picayune Strand, a 55,000-acre failed housing development where canals were back-filled to restore the natural wetlands.

The report also cheered the groundbreaking on what the committee in 2008 called "one of the most discouraging stories in Everglades restoration," a 20-year-long effort stopped up in court to bridge the Tamiami Trail. The trail runs east-west across the Everglades from Tampa to Miami, acting like a giant dam. Work is now under way to bridge a 1-mile segment.

After eight years of planning, "in the last couple years we're starting to see some projects hit the ground," said Davis. "We can now look forward to some restoration that's in the near term."

Areas in need of improvement include the scientific modeling efforts that drive restoration decisions involving the unavoidable trade-offs in building new reservoirs, buying new restoration lands and back-filling canals, the report said. The report also calls for stepping up involvement of the various environmental groups, farmers, developers and other interests that tend to go to war over Everglades policy.

The scientists also noted the potential benefits of a controversial, 27,000-acre restoration land deal that the state has brokered with U.S. Sugar Corp.

"I haven't seen a great deal of research on the implications of buying that land," Graf said. "That's why you're seeing the committee not making strong statements about it. We just don't know."

Graf compared the overall effort to steering an aircraft carrier, saying that sustaining political will and spending while improving science and modeling is critical to a full turnaround.

"I feel the aircraft carrier was headed for a reef two years ago," Graf said. "We're beginning to turn the ship at this point. It think we're going to avoid cracking up. It's just a process that's going to take some time."