Wh : Up First Why is it so complicated to save the Everglades?

The Everglades is home to the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere and a sanctuary for over three dozen endangered and threatened species. It also provides fresh water, flood control, and a buffer against hurricanes and rising seas for about 9 million Floridians.

But climate change, pollution, agriculture and rapid development are causing potentially irreversible damage.

In 2000, the state of Florida and the federal government struck an extraordinary deal to save the Everglades. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was the largest ecosystem restoration project in the world.

But from the moment it was signed into law, things got complicated.

Now almost 25 years later, the Everglades is as endangered as ever, and the problems have become even more difficult—and expensive—to solve.

Today on The Sunday Story, Ayesha Rascoe talks with WLRN's Jenny Staletovich. Jenny has a new podcast series out called Bright Lit Place that tells the dramatic story of the Everglades, what's been done to the ecosystem, and what needs to happen to save it.

The Sunday Story: How to Save the Everglades

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

I'm Ayesha Rascoe, and this is THE SUNDAY STORY.

The Everglades - you've probably heard of it - that massive wilderness of wetlands on the southern tip of Florida. It's home to the largest mangrove ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere, and it's a sanctuary for over three dozen endangered and threatened species. It's also the water supply for about 9 million Floridians. The Everglades is a crucial ecosystem, and it's in crisis. Climate change, pollution, agriculture and rapid development are causing potentially irreversible damage.

Almost 25 years ago, the state of Florida and the federal government struck an extraordinary deal to save the Everglades. But from the moment it passed, the problems began. The plan's been crippled by years of trade-offs and backroom dealing and rising costs, with little to show for the billions spent. Meanwhile, South Florida is thirsty - the population keeps growing, the climate keeps changing, and the Everglades keep dying.

Today I'm talking with environment reporter Jenny Staletovich from South Florida's WLRN radio station. Jenny has a new podcast series out called Bright Lit Place that tells the dramatic story of the Everglades, what's been done to the ecosystem and what needs to happen to save it. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: We're back with the Sunday Story here with WLRN environment reporter Jenny Staletovich talking about the Everglades. Jenny, for people who've never been to South Florida, what are we talking about? What are the Everglades?

JENNY STALETOVICH, BYLINE: So the Everglades really are this huge wetland system that covers basically all of South Florida. And within the wetland are these different areas. There are swamps. You still have mangrove forests, four-story-tall mangroves, down at the southern end. The biggest feature of the Everglades is probably the river of grass - 40 miles wide and 100 miles long. And if you think of a river, a shallow river, that's literally what it is but filled with sawgrass. It looks like a sea of sawgrass. But if you were to wade out into it, it would be shallow water moving very, very slowly from north to south and out into Florida Bay.

RASCOE: There's also all of this wildlife. Can you talk about that?

STALETOVICH: So when you when you go into the Everglades, you encounter just this variety of wild and exotic and flamboyant wildlife. There are panthers in the Everglades. There are flamingos in the Everglades and bonneted bats with ears that are, like, literally like bonnets. They're the largest bats in North America. There are lots of snakes. There's butterflies that you can't find anyplace else on the Earth. They're fluorescent blue. In the sawgrass, the wading birds that come and roost there are some of the weirdest that you've ever seen.

There are things called wood storks. They're often nicknamed the preacher's bird because when they're, you know, on the ground, they wrap themselves in their wings that are black on the outside. But when they take off, they're white underneath. There are roseate spoonbills that have these bills that are shaped like spoons so that they can hunt for fish. They use the bills to swish back and forth in the water. Swallow tails that are as big as your hand - warblers that are migrating flock to the mangroves. So you'll be inside the mangroves, and you'll just hear this chorus of warblers singing all around you. And so it's just a menagerie.

RASCOE: And I mean, that sounds like really incredible biodiversity and like a really unique ecosystem. Does the Everglades play a role in the larger environment?

STALETOVICH: On a planet-wide global scale? We're on the Atlantic Flyway for migrating birds that fly up from the bottom of South America to the Arctic. And in terms of climate change, the marshes and the peat soil below them, along with the mangrove forests, are huge carbon sinks. They are like America's Amazon. For the Florida ecosystem, it is hugely important in terms of water supply in South Florida. Like, modern South Florida, would not exist without the Everglades, because those marshes that I keep talking about essentially filter water in a shallow drinking aquifer that supplies water to about 9 million Floridians.

So during the wet season, the Everglades, you know, basically helps keep the rest of South Florida dry. It holds a ton of water that might otherwise flood neighborhoods and cities. And then during the dry season when you actually needed water supply, those marshes were there to give us that water supply. Really, it was this perfect balance between the wet and the dry season and the things that you needed to happen in the wet season, which is sawgrass marshes absorbing water. That's what they did. And all that water would flow down the river of grass, and it wouldn't just like flow straight, but it would also flow out the side in areas where there were depressions in these coastal ridges.

RASCOE: So is it kind of like a bowl but a shallow bowl? Is that like the water...

STALETOVICH: It's exactly that.

RASCOE: Yeah.

STALETOVICH: You essentially would get fresh water flowing all offshore around Florida. And that's what helped create, you know, really beautiful beaches in these estuaries. And within those you just get this variety of wildlife and fish and miles and miles of seagrass meadows that are basically the nurseries for a lot of wildlife.

RASCOE: Well, I would imagine, though, that the Everglades have probably changed a lot in the last century, and I would imagine that it has to do a lot with human beings.

STALETOVICH: For sure. So the Everglades, before modern South Florida arrived, covered about 4,000 square miles, and now they're down to about half that size. Florida became a state in 1847, and just a few years later, you know, the leaders of this new state said, how are we going to create an economy? Well, let's drain the Everglades and turn them into farm fields.

Starting in the late 1800s, early settlers came in and started draining parts of the Everglades, and they built these canals to control water during the rainy season that started drying up the river of grass, which they thought was a good thing at the time. So all that drainage essentially wiped out half the Everglades, turned it into farm fields. It was hugely successful because that peat soil was so mucky and rich that you could grow anything there. And it became the winter breadbasket for U.S.

RASCOE: Was there also pollution from the farming?

STALETOVICH: Yes. So all those farm fields that grew up around the Everglades use fertilizer. And one of the common ingredients in fertilizer is phosphorus. So when you started growing all that sugar cane and all those other crops, it started to pollute the Everglades with this - with phosphorus. The Everglades, however, thrives with very little phosphorus. That's why you get these sparse sawgrass marshes. That sparse grass allows water to flow. That kind of grass does not need a lot of phosphorus.

When you get too much of it, it spurs too much plant growth, and it allows other plants that need phosphorus to grow to come in and take over this area. So you started seeing other plants come in and start choking the river of grass. One of the most damaging plants is cattails. They're a native plant, but they grow in parts of the state where phosphorus occurs naturally. When you get cattails, bulrush, other kinds of marsh grasses moving in, it stops up the water flow.

RASCOE: So I guess all of this, you know, meddling from flood-control projects, water diversion - like, what does this mean for the way that Everglades function naturally?

STALETOVICH: What that did was ruin basically the infrastructure that nature built that provided a natural flood control and drinking water supply. So, you know, South Florida - parts that used to be wet were now dry, and dry parts were wet. You essentially get a breakdown of this natural system that filtered and stored water, and instead everything is being drained to make way for farm fields and cities.

And the consequences of that were these freshwater marshes, the estuaries and bays, and the fishing grounds also got screwed up. They were too salty. They weren't getting enough fresh water. And without that fresh water, you get seagrass meadows dying and the nurseries where bonefish and tarpon and some of the sport fish that draw people from all over the world were going away.

RASCOE: All of these cascading environmental effects - but I would imagine that there are also lives and livelihoods that are at stake here.

STALETOVICH: There's two people I met that I wanted to tell you about who just in their lifetimes, have seen the Everglades transform dramatically.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MICHAEL FRANK: There's a island over here. It's got a lot of trees, and it's high. And when the water is high, it never goes underwater.

STALETOVICH: Michael Frank is one of the guys I wanted to tell you about. He's a member of the Miccosukee tribe. Historically, the tribe lived on what are called these tree islands which rise out of the river of grass. They were formed by sediment piling up in tree roots over thousands of years. Michael was born and raised on a tree island called Highland, and he told me he remembers being able to spear fish in the marshes because the water was so clear. The Miccosukee even have a special name for the Everglades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FRANK: Kahayatle. Kahayatle means a bright-lit place. It's like shining up. Look at that. Go ahead and look at it. It's shining, the water, from the sun. Kahayatle means - say kahayatle. Kahayatle means light. It's lit up. You could see all the way to the bottom. And you would see sometimes even tarpons, even fish that's in the bay. They would swim all the way. Yeah, we use a spear to gig our fish, right? You'd see a big old tarpon; oh, man, I'm going to have a big dinner. Boom - your spear was gone. Anything that could migrate their way in the canals, they made it out into the Everglades 'cause it was crystal clear.

STALETOVICH: I went out on the water with another person who remembers the good old days of fishing. He's a second-generation fishing captain, Tim Klein.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TIM KLEIN: You know, like, the most famous bonefish spots in our backyard is what we call downtown - Shell Key, Ligden Vitey.

STALETOVICH: So he took me out on some of the flats in Florida Bay. These were once world-class fishing grounds covered with different kinds of sport fish. Records were set here. But now those fish are going away.

KLEIN: You know, like, 70% of the grass is gone, and that's where, you know, the bonefish fed and stuff. We need a change. So we need to - we just need water. Some way or another, we need water in our bay before it dies again.

STALETOVICH: And I should say, the idea of losing these fishing grounds is a really big deal here in South Florida. You know, fishing is hugely important, not just economically, but culturally.

RASCOE: So all of this is happening because humans are trying to control the water.

STALETOVICH: Yeah. This idea of really controlling and taming nature, I mean, it's something that America was built on. But when the U.S. government came in and was doing all this dredging and flooding the tree islands out - you know, Michael Frank was 6 years old when Highland went underwater.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FRANK: It went 3 or 4 feet underwater.

STALETOVICH: And while that work was going on, Michael Frank's family and the rest of the tribe that lived out there on the tree islands, they were forced to move to higher ground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FRANK: They told my grandfather and grandmother, if that day ever come - your island goes underwater - we'll come and build up your camp. But they never came and built up - built the camps up.

STALETOVICH: That was one of many broken promises. You know, the government didn't do anything to protect the islands. So what that meant was that Michael Frank's family, along with other members of the Miccosukee Tribe, had to move to the Tamiami Trail. The trail is the highway that was built in the '20s to connect both Florida's coasts. But that move really changed the tribe.

They'd lost not just their homeland, but their hunting grounds. And so a lot of people were living along the highway, basically selling trinkets to tourists traveling the highway. They eventually got reservation land to the north, but they're still fighting to recover these ancestral tree islands that are basically being washed away by floodwater and water that's kept too high.

RASCOE: I mean, it sounds very bad. The Native Americans have been displaced. The birds, the mammals, the coastal fisheries are all suffering these huge declines. The land has been cut up, drained, flooded - just a mess. So - but it wasn't supposed to be like this, right? Like, there was supposed to be a solution.

STALETOVICH: Right. So in 2000, Congress passed what's known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. And at the time, it was hailed as this huge win for the environment. It had strong bipartisan support, and it was also the largest hydrologic restoration plan ever undertaken in the U.S. It was supposed to be a model that could have helped us figure out how to deal with some of the impacts from climate change. But it was going to be expensive. It was expected to cost $8 billion and would probably take a couple of decades to finish.

RASCOE: So a couple of decades from the year 2000 - that seems like this should be wrapping up right about now, then, right?

STALETOVICH: Yes, if things had gone according to plan, but that's not the way it worked out.

RASCOE: When we come back - what happened to that big plan to save the Everglades. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: We're back talking to Jenny Staletovich, host of the podcast Bright Lit Place, about the Everglades. So Congress passed this massive plan to restore the Everglades. I'm sure there were signing ceremonies and all this - press conferences and what have you. So what happened?

STALETOVICH: Well, the solution on paper seemed pretty simple. The scientists said they knew exactly what needed to happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TOM VAN LENT: The formula for restoration isn't hard from the ecological perspective.

STALETOVICH: They just needed to get the water flowing again. But that turned out to be a complicated thing to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

VAN LENT: You have to maintain all these other things, and you can't affect anybody, and you can't have any other consequence. That's hard.

STALETOVICH: This is hydrologist Tom Van Lent. When I spoke to him, he was really frustrated by the people aspect of restoration. There are so many stakeholders - landowners, companies, government agencies. There are all these interests in the Everglades. And, you know, it will be impossible to get water back into the Everglades without affecting the stakeholders. So what all this means is, right after the Everglades Restoration Plan came into law, the problems started.

The first was with Congress itself. The restoration plan was bipartisan, but then gridlock set into Congress right after it was passed. It was also just a rough blueprint for what needed to be done, so it included dozens of projects. It was, like, 50 main projects and 68 components within those 50 projects. And part of the plan said that as you're going along, if cost escalates too much, you have to bring it back to us and have it reauthorized.

This was actually a pretty standard way to get things done in the past. But, you know, after it was passed in 2000, the projects didn't get authorized for another seven years, and that was just a small group of projects. And then it took another seven years to get another small group of projects passed.

RASCOE: So it seems like things are falling behind schedule.

STALETOVICH: Yes. And at the same time, South Florida was having yet another one of its building booms, which made things even more complicated. I spoke to Julie Hill-Gabriel, who's an attorney with Audubon. She was working in South Florida, you know, in the early 2000s when restoration was still fairly new.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JULIE HILL-GABRIEL: You have what is pegged as the world's largest ecosystem restoration effort. That had really just begun. And at the same time, the land that is currently still available in the Everglades is being targeted to be drained. So we're going to initiate the world's largest effort to restore wetlands, while at the same time, we're filling in and destroying the wetlands that remain.

STALETOVICH: She was, as you can hear, understandably really frustrated that the restoration plan didn't seem to have any teeth. And that made Audubon's work, which is to advocate to get restoration done, unnecessarily difficult.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

HILL-GABRIEL: We had some projects that were initially designed to use certain footprints of land, and then local governments were approving that land to be developed for new communities or businesses. And so we kept having to change some of the project designs based on what was actually available.

RASCOE: So Congress had passed these big plans. But local governments are meanwhile approving land to be developed. Did the state of Florida not have a plan to set land aside to be restored?

STALETOVICH: No. And that was part of the problem. Those original architects of the restoration plan - they worried that if the state was allowed to seize the land, you know, the plan wouldn't get passed, and it wouldn't get the support it needed. So they relied on willing sellers. And a lot of the land that they needed for projects was privately owned farmland and mostly sugar cane fields.

In 2008, U.S. Sugar briefly agreed to sell most of their holdings to the state. And that could've changed restoration for good and alter the course of history. But that deal fell apart, and they have mostly opposed selling land going forward. The U.S. Sugar Program, which guarantees the price of domestic sugar, also provides huge incentives for farmers to stay in business.

RASCOE: OK. So I'm guessing with all these delays that costs are also increasing.

STALETOVICH: Yes. The price just went up and up. And today, restoring the Everglades is expected to cost $23 billion. So that's three times the original price. And it's just like this vicious cycle because prices going up causes further delays since, as I mentioned before, it was written into the plan that if costs change, then projects have to be reauthorized by Congress.

RASCOE: I mean, this all sounds very familiar, I mean, when you think of these giant public works projects - is that they drag on and on, and then they get more and more expensive.

STALETOVICH: Yeah, there's the bureaucracy aspect. But then environmentally speaking, certain problems are as daunting as ever. You know, when we look at water that's supposed to go into the Everglades, the pollution levels are still too high. And that's despite valiant restoration efforts to reduce the pollution and get it under control. So we talked about the phosphorus problem and sugar farming. And the state of Florida has already spent more than $1 billion trying to clean that water by building these massive treatment marshes, but they're not working.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE STARTING)

STALETOVICH: So I took a trip on an airboat to one of the treatment marshes to see what was going on with Eric Crawford. He's a wetlands ecologist, and he oversees the vegetation that they grow in the marshes to try and suck up all the phosphorus pollution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ERIC CRAWFORD: So you want to do a little gentle loop into the marsh, see some of the birds and plants. And then we can stop.

STALETOVICH: At first glance, it's weird because it's a treatment marsh, but it looks like another sort of beautiful slice of the Everglades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CRAWFORD: Yeah. You didn't think you'd enjoy sitting in the middle of an industrial wastewater treatment facility. But that's where we are.

STALETOVICH: There's birds all over. There's American lotuses, these big platter-sized plants growing on the water. And there's also a ton of alligators and snakes.

RASCOE: Oh, OK. Well (laughter), I mean, with the snakes and the alligators, I will leave that to you. I'm sure it was - you made it out all right because I'm talking to you.

STALETOVICH: (Laughter). Yes. Thankfully, they put airboats when people are in the water to keep an eye out for the snakes and alligators with rifles (laughter).

RASCOE: Well, and what did Crawford tell you about this facility?

STALETOVICH: Yeah. So as beautiful as the treatment marshes are, while we're out on the airboat, Crawford also showed me signs of how the treatment isn't working as well as it needs to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CRAWFORD: We're getting closer to the front end of the system here. And you can see there's a lot of nutrients. We have all this algae growing in the mud.

STALETOVICH: Here is the problem. While they're beautiful and they are working hard, they are still not getting water clean enough. Scientists have said that to put water back in the Everglades, the phosphorus has to be at these really low levels of 13 parts per billion. That is, like, one drop in a 10,000-gallon swimming pool. And the marshes have succeeded at taking out tons and tons of phosphorus. But what they're not able to do is get the phosphorus levels down to those tiny, tiny levels.

The other thing is, these marshes also have to do double duty and act as stormwater marshes when hurricanes or tropical storms come through. So then they have to stop treating the water and trying to clean it. Instead, they have to offer flood control.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

FRANK: And that's a completely different operation. That - then the structures open up, and the water moves, but then we have to be ready to switch back to the trickle, let's go for water quality performance. And now it's switch modes. So you don't get two different teams. You get one piece of land to do both.

STALETOVICH: Whenever there's a big storm or hurricane, which, as it happens, is getting more common with climate change, all this polluted stormwater runoff gets channeled into them. So the treatment marshes are not able to do the job that they were originally intended to do, which is to get the water clean enough to send into the Everglades.

RASCOE: I mean, it seems like they're asking too much of these treatment marshes.

STALETOVICH: Yeah. Yeah. There's now a 2025 court deadline that requires the water coming out of the marshes to meet the pollution limit, but scientists say that it is unlikely that we're going to meet that deadline. There's one team of scientists that says another 30,000 acres of treatment marshes are going to be needed to meet those goals.

RASCOE: Wow. Yeah. OK. So to recap, basically, Congress set the plan but hasn't funded the projects on time. The water needs to be cleaned, and more marshes need to be created. And that's not happening. Meanwhile, more and more development is happening on land that should go back to be restored. And on top of that, the ag industry continues to use fertilizers that are polluting the water. So none of it is working the way it should, essentially.

STALETOVICH: Right. So it's all these problems, a series of problems, and it winds up being like whack-a-mole.

RASCOE: From everything that you're saying, it sounds like restoring the Everglades is kind of an impossible promise.

STALETOVICH: I mean, it may be that there are folks who think that that it'll never get done, but, you know, it turns out that the hammer in all this restoration has been the courts. I mean, they're the ones that can force both governments, the state and the federal government, to do things. And it's thanks to federal laws like the Clean Water Act that we have this 2025 deadline for the pollution limits. And really, that could help determine how restoration moves forward because, so far, nobody is willing to make the really hard choices that are needed to save the Everglades.

The ag industry, you know, continues to get the water it needs. Cities have gotten their water plus flood control, and they still get to keep growing. And despite all the promises, restoration never seems to be the priority.

We are now asking the Everglades to do the same job that it did a century ago on half the footprint. It's not succeeding, and it's dying at the same time. And you can see that in every corner of the Everglades, whether it's the tree islands where the Miccosukee once lived or algae blooms that are fouling Lake Okeechobee or the fishing grounds where Tim Klein was once a trophy-winning guide. The Everglades is this national treasure. But we're not treating it that way. That requires sacrifice. And so far, no one is willing to make those sacrifices.

RASCOE: After all these years of reporting, do you have, like, one lasting image of the Everglades that stays with you, that makes you feel why this place is so important?

STALETOVICH: You know, I've thought about that a lot lately, and it's almost more than an image. It's the sound. South Florida is noisy and busy - the high-rises and the highways and the traffic jams. And the Everglades - no matter what part you're in, it's like walking into sometimes nothingness because it is wide-open, quiet space. So you really get the sense of the end of the world. You know, we are a peninsula. We are literally the end of North America.

I mean, I kind of close my eyes, and I could, like, visually see these steps down from the sawgrass marshes down into the mangrove forest. It's like you're in this green cathedral, and you hear birds and birdsong echoing through these forests. And you just don't have that kind of solace any place else, or at least for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: Well, thank you so much for all of your reporting and your work on such an important topic.

STALETOVICH: Thank you so much for including the podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: That was Jenny Staletovich. Her podcast about the Everglades and its restoration is called Bright Lit Place.

This episode was produced by Justine Yan. Our editor is Jenny Schmidt. THE SUNDAY STORY team includes Andrew Mambo and Liana Simstrom. Irene Noguchi is our executive producer. The engineer for the episode is Josh Newell.

We always love hearing from you, so feel free to reach out to us at thesundaystory@npr.org. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. Up First is back in your feed tomorrow with all the news you need to start your week. Until then, enjoy the rest of your weekend.

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