By: R. Michael Brown, Civic Association Communication Director -- Directors and members of the Civic Association took an airboat tour of the Everglades with their corporate partner The Everglades Foundation. The purpose - learn about restoration of this national treasure.

Hosts were Deborah Johnson, vice president of development, and Dr. Kristie Wendelberger, outdoor education and outreach coordinator.

On the bus ride from the Civic Association to the Everglades airboat docks, Dr. Wendelberger and Mrs. Johnson explained how the development of Florida for agriculture and a booming population caused major damage to the Everglades known as the “River of Grass.”

The Everglades Used to Have a Heartbeat - It Doesn't Anymore from Palm Beach Civic Association on Vimeo [3:44]

“The Everglades was once looked upon as a worthless swamp,” said Dr. Wendelberger. “It stood in the way of prosperity and opportunity in Florida, a wasteland destined to be drained, ditched, and diverted for farming and the housing of the earliest settlers and tourists.”

The state constructed canals and dyke systems to reroute river, swamp, and lake water for flood control, agriculture, and to supply water to a booming early population. They didn’t realize the damage they were doing for the Floridians of the future.

That damage now has to be undone.  Civic Association directors and members got a chance to see the issues first hand from airboats.  The view was remarkable and the explained solutions large and complex.

Everglades Area Map As Captain Bob, an airboat pilot for 51 years in the Glades said during the tour, “In the old days the Everglades had a heartbeat. It doesn’t have one today. In the wintertime and springtime, our driest time of year, the Glades would shrink and get shallow.  In the summer the rains would come and the Glades would swell-up and go deep.  Overtime the Everglades would shrink-up, swell-up, shrink-up, swell-up, just like a heart.  Now that man’s come in and rerouted the water, it’s all swelled-up all the time in some areas, shrunk-up in others. Without a heartbeat everything dies.”

Deep water and phosphorus pollution from upstream agriculture, cattle ranches, and inhabitants using septic tanks are killing Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

All the effort to straighten rivers and drain swampland created a direct line for the pollution into Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades without the natural cleaning that used to take place before it reached Florida Bay. The system needs to be re-plumbed back toward its natural state.

In 2000, Congress passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).  It covers an area from the Kissimmee River Basin just south of Orlando all the way to the end of the peninsula at Florida Bay. The plan covers 18 thousand square miles, an estimated $10 billion budget, and 30 to 50 years to implement.

The goal is to capture fresh water that now flows unused to the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, clean it, and redirect it to areas that need it most. To do that will require restoring the Everglades ecosystem so that the natural filtration of pollutants will happen in new manmade structures and the river of grass. Plants in the Everglades clean the pollution from the water.  The once thought worthless swamp is needed more than ever to sustain Florida’s water resources, habitat, and economy.

CERP has 68 projects to make this happen including reservoirs north and south of Lake Okeechobee. A critical project is 60 thousand acres of reservoir(s) south of the lake in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). The total EAA area is 700 thousand acres.  Stakeholders in the project are looking for willing land sellers and buyers so they have the land to construct the water retention reservoirs.  

Florida has legislation in the works to buy the land. The Florida Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee gave unanimous support to Senate Bill 10 [Follow the Status: https://www.flsenate.gov/Session/Bill/2017/0010] and it’s now going through Appropriations before a full Senate vote. The bill proposes the state bond $100 million a year through money voters approved in the 2014 constitutional amendment.

Reservoirs provide a way to clean polluted water and get it flowing south again and to have an overflow storage area so freshwater isn’t wasted by sending it east and west out to sea.

“It’s about finding an amicable solution that we can live harmoniously in a state that thrives on agriculture, thrives on tourism, and the quality and beauty of our natural water and ecosystems,” said Mrs. Johnson.  

“The Everglades Foundation’s is dedicated to protecting and restoring the Everglades. Part of our mission is education - like this Civic Association tour,” said Mrs. Johnson.

“It’s an important cause and it’s about time Palm Beachers paid attention to it and thanks to this synergy between the Civic Association and the Everglades Foundation people are now coming out here,” said Gary Lickle, who is on the board of directors for both organizations. “Now they’re stewards of the message. They’re spreading the word in Palm Beach and helping us.”

Everglades fly overMr. Lickle, who was the pilot of the seaplane for the video shoot of the tour (stay tuned!), pointed to an initiative by the Everglades Foundation named the George Barley Water Prize. Mr. Barley was the co-founder of the foundation.

“It costs $1 to pollute a gallon of water with phosphorous from fertilizers and other sources,” said Mr. Lickle. “And currently $300 to clean that gallon.”

“We’ve offered a $10 million X-Prize for the first person or company that comes up with the ability to extract phosphorous out of the water and turn it into a reusable inert product.  We have no idea if this is possible, however we’ve already gotten, I think it’s now 130 participants, and if we solve this problem, it’s not just a solution for Florida, it’s a solution for the world’s estuaries and the worlds waters, which could be quite exciting, and it started here.”

If the phosphorus sediment in Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades can be cleaned up, blue-green algae blooms, like the disaster than happened last summer in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers and 44 other locations, would be a problem of the past.  Some of the toxic algae reached Palm Beach and Peanut Island.  Waterways and beaches were closed throughout a large area of South Florida as Governor Scott declared a state of emergency for 200 days in 2016.

The tour participants stopped for lunch at one of the 17 remaining tree islands.  “There used to be hundreds but they’ve been flooded out and destroyed by the man-made structures used to ‘fix’ the Everglades,” said Dr. Wendelberger.  

Several on the tour noticed that they didn’t see any alligators or many birds. “There’s no more big animals living on this side of the road today because there’s too much water in the Everglades in this part,” said Capt. Bob.  “You get on the other side and it’s dry. And that’s where we need some water right now.  We used to have deer, alligators hatching, lots of birdlife. Not anymore.”

“The Everglades Foundation all started as a project to clean up Florida Bay, save the back country fishing, along with all the birds and the flora, fauna and everything else out in the Everglades,” said Mr. Lickle. “But now, and more importantly, it’s our fresh drinking water for 8 million people.”

The Civic Association and Everglades Foundation are both dedicated to protecting and improving Palm Beach and Florida. On this tour, Civic Association members saw the challenges ahead and are taking action so the work will continue to stop the deadly algae in summer, recurring droughts in winter without adequate water storage backup, and restore the Everglades.

At the end of the tour, Capt. Bob summed up the sentiments of the group, “Hopefully we can get this thing back to the natural flow so we can get that heartbeat going in the Glades again. That will fix the water problems for my grandchildren and for all the folks of Florida.”

Photos by: R. Michael Brown and Alex Dreyfoos

2017 Everglades Tour March 8, 2017

Civic Association & Everglades Foundation Education Tour