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Healing Florida's 'River of Grass'

By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

Florida's Everglades - the world-renowned wetland area that has been under siege for more than a century - has been offered a lifeline.

Rain cloud over the Everglades
The Everglades is a symbol of America's natural beauty

This week, the governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, announced plans to buy more than 800sq km (300sq miles) of land used for growing sugarcane, and restore it to its natural state.

The state of Florida will pay the firm US Sugar $1.7bn for the land, which will be turned into marshes and waterways.

The aim is to restore the fabled "river of grass", a 160-kilometre (99-mile) long, shallow river flowing unimpeded from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.

Lake Okeechobee is the second-largest freshwater lake wholly within the continental United States.

Water management

Environmentalists hope the latest moves will restore a fragile ecosystem that supplies fresh water to the aquifers of southern Florida.

They have described the proposal by Mr Crist as the largest ecological restoration project in the history of the US.

Florida map

Jeff Danter, Florida state director of Nature Conservancy, told the BBC how the project could revitalise the region.

"As humans moved into the Everglades over the last more than 100 years, they've continually diverted the water through ditches and canals for a variety of reasons: agriculture, drinking water and that sort of thing," he said.

"It has got to the point where the system no longer works the way it used to and that's had a really detrimental effect on most of the life in the Everglades. The government has committed billions of dollars to try to restore the Everglades but this, we're very hopeful, will make that job a lot easier."

According to Michael Grunwald - journalist and author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise - the Everglades, which once covered four million acres of swampland, has shrunk to half its original size.

"Half of it has gone, the other half is in an ecological mess," he said.

Change

He welcomed this week's proposals, which he says aim to recreate the region's natural flow of water.

NATIONAL TREASURE
Gator
Established as the Everglades National Park in 1947
Spans 1.5 million acres
Home to 14 federally listed threatened or endangered species
Listed species include Florida panther, American crocodile, loggerhead turtle, wood stork and manatee
"This could bring real political and economic change," he told the BBC News website, speaking from Florida.

In 2000, Congress passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (Cerp), which called for the construction of reservoirs, back-filling of canals and rerouting of water to rescue the Everglades.

Mr Grunwald said the 2000 plan prioritised water for agriculture and expanding cities.

"It was not going to provide much water for the Everglades itself," he said. "The latest proposals by Governor Charlie Crist will help send the water south again."

Lobbying power

He describes how growing sugar cane has irreversibly altered the environment.

"Sugar fields like to be wet when the Everglades like to be dry and vice versa," he said. "And, when it rained hard, the growers had to blast the water east to west to get rid of it, dumping millions of gallons of water and ravaging the estuaries."

Land sitting below the sugar plantations was not getting enough water, he said.

There is an understanding that one day water will be as precious as oil
Michael Grunwald

He blames what he calls the sugar industry's "spectacular lobbying power" for the fact that not enough has been done to restore the natural balance.

Mr Grunwald said that while it was too late to entirely restore the Everglades, the purchased land could provide hundreds of square miles of water storage. Water could be filtered and then moved to the southern end of the Florida peninsula.

Environmentalists have dreamed of the restoration of a direct lake-Everglades connection for decades.

Jack E Davis, history professor at the University of Florida described this week's announcement as an "historic move" by Mr Crist.

"It shows remarkable commitment," he told the BBC News website. "He is putting the state ahead of the federal government in terms of providing money. The 2000 plan made the federal government and Florida 50-50 partners but under President [George W] Bush, the federal government has not lived up to its part of the bargain."

He said that for many Americans, the protection and restoration of the Everglades was of the highest priority.

"It has become an indicator of how well the US is doing in its relations with the environment - particularly the wetlands," he said. "Providing clean, drinking water has become a priority."

Mr Grunwald agrees: "There is an understanding that one day water will be as precious as oil.

"Many environmentalists see this as a test - if we pass we may get to keep the planet."


SEE ALSO
US court hears Everglades case
14 Jan 04 |  Americas
Saving the threatened Everglades
06 Mar 99 |  Americas

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