Restoration of Florida’s Apalachicola River, Ocklawaha River and Shark River Slough for years has been debated, fought over and delayed by courts, politics, cities and agriculture.
The status of the three remains mixed and uncertain, as are their prospects for tolerating a changing climate already revealing its dangers with the current spree of Florida’s and the planet’s hottest years on record.
Environmental experts fear that the sickly will fail in the face of rising sea levels, droughts and punishing storms.
“As with any illness, the health of the body determines survival,” said Bob Graham, a former Florida governor and U.S. senator.
Shark River Slough
Perhaps the waterway with the brightest outlook is the Shark River Slough.
Near the Shark Valley visitor center in the Everglades National Park, miles of the original, crumbling Tamiami Trail roadbed are slated for removal. It holds back water of Shark River Slough that comes under newly bridged portions of the modern Tamiami Trail.
Not to be defeated, tendrils of slough water have been snaking across the old road, runners escaping into the park. It’s an arresting visual of the hopes and dreams for Everglades restoration — sending more water into the park.
“We want to re-create the historic sheet flow,” said Armando Vilaboy of the South Florida Water Management District.
East of the visitor center is a newly built hulk of concrete, a flood gate that will boost water flowing under Tamiami Trail bridges. It is one of billions of dollars worth of structures — walls, pumps, gates and reservoirs — required to mimic the Glade’s sheet flow.
STORIES IN THIS SERIES
Time is running out to save three Florida waterways threatened by climate change: the Apalachicola River, the Ocklawaha River and Shark River Slough
PART 1: Apalachicola, Ocklawaha, Shark River Slough: Florida’s magnificent, damaged waters at the brink of new assaults from changing climate.
PART 2: Apalachicola River: Hope wanes as state’s largest river succumbs to weakening current, dredging damage and imperiled forest
PART 3: Ocklawaha River: Reservoir from government blunder 50 years ago blocks free flow of water and wildife from Silver Springs to St. Johns River
PART 4: Shark River Slough: Main path of water into suffering Everglades park regaining potency, new life with bridges
PART 5: Apalachicola, Ocklawaha, Shark River Slough: Contested waters, different foes, varied outlooks as time runs short
Billions of dollars in government support is not unrealistic. The drive for restoring South Florida’s world-class treasure has support on critical fronts and is magnitudes beyond any other environmental restoration in the state.
“Everglades restoration is doing well in election years,” said Sarah Gaines Barmeyer, a senior director at the National Parks Conservation Association.
Robert Spottswood, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission of Everglades and Shark River Slough restoration, acknowledges that restoring the water flow is “so, so complicated.”
Nevertheless, “I’m really, really encouraged,” he said.
But Mary Barley, an Everglades Foundation leader, said “it’s too early to tell.” Her husband, Everglades warrior George Barley, was killed 25 years ago in an Orlando plane crash on the way to an Everglades meeting.
“You cannot ever let up on the gas, because if you do, you lose,” Barley said.
Restoration has evolved since before Marjory Stoneman Douglas published The Everglades, River of Grass in 1947. A sense of the grandeur she captured is still visible from a tower at Everglades National Park’s Shark Valley, the cradle of Shark River Slough.
Sawgrass prairie in muted tones, glittering pockets of water and tree islands extend to the horizons.
“The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below,” Douglas wrote. “It is the river of grass.”
Phillip Greenwalt, supervisory ranger at Shark Valley, specialized in historical parks before he considered transferring to the Glades. He climbed the tower and realized: “I get it.”
Success will key on the quality of additional water coming into the park. It is so necessarily pristine, said park scientist Damon Rondeau, that it evades detection.
“We use instrumentation that is acoustic, that bounces a signal like a sonar, and sometimes the water is so clear it doesn’t give enough feedback,” he said.
Restoration will become harder, said Celeste De Palma, who was Audubon’s Everglades director until recently and is now pursuing a graduate degree in environmental studies.
“Getting these projects funded, designed and constructed is actually the easiest part,” she said. “Once you have those pieces in the ground, now comes the real challenge of making sure they do what they were intended.”
Nearly 100 miles away from the Apalachicola River’s start at Jim Woodruff Dam, it widens into a knitting of swamp, creeks and hidden lakes. The expanse extends south to East Bay, joining the larger Apalachicola Bay, which connects to the Gulf of Mexico.
Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s Georgia Ackerman idled her boat through a skinny branch not far from the city of Apalachicola but suggesting a lost world. With a turn south, she pulled up to a nearly 30-foot tower standing in water. It is a remote station of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The tower is equipped to sense nearly everything physical: sea level, elevation of the river bottom, storms, temperatures and more.
“The hope is the data are a neutral information source to better understand how conditions may be changing,” said Jenna Harper, manager of the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve.
There is much to watch for.
The Supreme Court may soon make a pivotal ruling in the tri-state legal war over Apalachicola waters, and whether too much of it goes to Georgia and Alabama for a variety of uses. Florida officials blame the diminished flow of the river for increasing salinity in Apalachicola Bay and the decimation of the oysters that had supported a Panhandle economy.
A recommendation last year by the court’s investigator does not bode well for Florida. The state, he wrote, has not upheld its legal argument for being denied a fair share of river water.
“It looks like it’s about to be a sad ending,” said Greg Munson, a Tallahassee lawyer and former deputy secretary with the Department of Environmental Protection. Munson said Florida had little choice but to turn to the Supreme Court.
“If you look at the flows in the Apalachicola, they’ve dropped year after year after year and little bit by little bit,” Munson said. “The worst result from the litigation was not going to be worse than what you would get to ultimately.”
Another lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice, National Wildlife Federation, Florida Wildlife Federation and Apalachicola Riverkeeper, alleges that the Corps of Engineers violates environmental laws with its plan for managing the flows in the Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola rivers.
Time for the legal fighting is running out, said Chris Manganiello of the Chattahootchee Riverkeeper in Atlanta. “The situation with the Apalachicola is untenable.”
Gil Rogers, a director with the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center, said the best course may be renewed negotiations for a political settlement between the three states.
“Water management is becoming more of a challenge, with climate change, floods and longer and more severe droughts and floods,” Rogers said. “All three of the states that share this system have an obligation to make sure they can do everything possible to keep the system healthy.”
But Apalachicola River restoration has not stalled completely.
Work to reverse damage by the Corps of Engineers dredging is being done in waters overgrown with vegetation, using small boats, hand tools and grit, the realm of an oysterman.
Apalachicola Bay has been bereft of its famed oysters for years, and on Wednesday, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission ordered it closed to harvesting for the next five years as an attempt to restore the shellfish. Oystermen will be brought on for restoration projects.
The goal is to reestablish connections between the river and floodplain, including targeted areas known as Spiders Cut and Douglas Slough.
“I describe them as the veins and capillaries that feed the system,” Ackerman said. “Some of them are clogged up pretty badly.”
Her expectation is that the state’s remote-sensing tower will register improvements in water quality.
“The Apalachicola is remarkable and vast and we should be fighting tooth and nail to protect it,” Ackerman said. “The longer we wait for a resolution, the harder the struggle gets.”
Florida Defenders of the Environment members gathered under a blustery, summer day at the dam on the Ocklawaha River at the north end of Ocala National Forest. Group president Jennifer Carr, in a mood mirroring the weather, ticked off her bewilderment and frustration.
The Rodman dam, built for a 50-year life, was finished 52 years ago. Her group has fought 51 years for its dismantling to restore a free-flowing Ocklawaha from Silver Springs to the St. Johns River and Atlantic Ocean.
She cited her group’s contentions that the reservoir remains a stubble field of a drowned forest, is unnaturally hot, evaporates prodigious amounts of precious water, is a weed monster, is contaminated with herbicides and is hazardous for most boaters. The reservoir is devoid of the manatees and fish that would otherwise thrive in the river, obliterates 20 springs and is an ongoing wound to the St. Johns River and Silver Springs.
As the granddaughter of the group’s founder, Carr, 33, brought her daughter, Carmen, 6, and wondered if she will one day be president, still fighting the dam.
“It makes me feel like I’m in a third-world country,” Carr said of her view that state leaders are putting petty politics ahead of Ocklawaha stewardship.
As it has for decades, the Florida Defenders of the Environment continues to enlist scientists, lawyers and economists to prove the case for removing the dam and re-establishing the river’s free flow of 155 miles from Silver Springs to the Atlantic.
The “stimulus-ready project,’ according to the group, would come at a bargain price with a lucrative payoff for Central and North Florida’s environment and ecotourism.
“For what they spend to put a culvert in the Everglades you could restore the Ocklawaha,” said Richard Hamann, a former president and now advisor at the Florida Defenders of the Environment. It’s an exaggeration underscoring a staggering difference in restoration costs: many billions of dollars for the Everglades and a few million for the Ocklawaha.
The newly formed Free the Ocklawaha Coalition has more than 30 members from the state’s far corners. They include 1000 Friends of Florida in Tallahassee, Calusa Waterkeeper in Fort Myers, Friends of the Everglades, Save the Manatee Club in Maitland and Audubon Florida.
“All the pieces are in place,” said Jim Gross, executive director of the Florida Defenders of the Environment and a former state water regulator. “It’s all about pulling the trigger, and our governor could do that.”
Ed Lowe was the top scientist at the St. Johns River Water Management District for more than 30 years. Recently retired, he said it may help to enlist an outside group — perhaps the National Academy of Sciences — to independently document reasons to remove the dam.
But to Lowe, there is no doubt about the value of a free-flowing Ocklawaha.
“You are really looking at several superlative ecosystems that are notable worldwide and have had really significant declines,” he said of Silver Springs, the Ocklawaha River, the St. Johns River and its estuary at the Atlantic Ocean.
“All these systems are connected,” Lowe said. “To me, it doesn’t make sense to argue for or against Rodman Reservoir by looking just at the local area. You really have to consider the whole span of these ecosystems.”