Guest Column
Everglades restoration enhances water quality and benefits Florida’s real estate industry | Column
Discharges from Lake Okeechobee are polluted with toxic algae that threaten the environment, public health, economy and real estate values.
A clearing late-day storm adds drama in the sky over a sawgrass prairie in Everglades National Park. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)
A clearing late-day storm adds drama in the sky over a sawgrass prairie in Everglades National Park. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty) [ ROBERT F. BUKATY | AP ]
Published May 31, 2021

America’s Everglades provides the drinking water for nine million Floridians, habitat for 78 threatened or endangered species and includes a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere and a Wetland of International Importance.

Stephen Davis
Stephen Davis [ Provided ]

Everglades restoration is critical to the health of diverse ecosystems and the environmental benefits they provide. It will also help sequester excess atmospheric carbon dioxide, enhance storm surge resilience and support the sectors that define the Sunshine State’s robust economy, including the real estate industry.

“Real estate and water quality go hand-in-hand,” said President-elect Christina Pappas of Florida Realtors, the state’s largest professional trade association. She noted that every $1 invested in Everglades restoration generates $4 in economic return for the state, according to a recent analysis by Mather Economics.

“Florida Realtors has advocated for water quality improvements for many years and will continue to champion worthy projects, like Everglades restoration, throughout Florida to ensure that environmental impacts on real estate are addressed.”

Unfortunately, over the past century, manmade water diversions and flood control projects cut the natural flow of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades, instead dumping massive volumes of freshwater to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers for flood control. Due to decades of agricultural runoff, these discharges from Lake Okeechobee are now polluted with blooms of toxic blue-green algae that threaten the environment, public health, economy and real estate values along both coasts.

Everglades restoration will reinstate a vital flow of clean freshwater south from Lake Okeechobee, revitalizing the River of Grass, enhancing the drinking water supply for the region’s growing population, reducing damage to coastal communities from toxic algae blooms, enhancing property values and providing numerous other environmental benefits.

As toxic algae began affecting coastal communities in 2013, real estate professionals immediately recognized the importance of Everglades restoration. In 2015, Florida Realtors issued a report that demonstrated a direct relationship between water quality and home values in Lee and Martin counties. At that time, the report determined that improved water quality and clarity would generate increased, aggregate residential real estate values in Lee County by $541 million, and Martin County by $428 million.

Fortunately, Everglades restoration projects are underway, including an essential reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee and engineered wetlands that filter polluted agricultural runoff, so we can send more clean water south where it is needed most.

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — the federal agency responsible for managing Everglades restoration planning and construction — has the opportunity to ensure more water is sent south through the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). LOSOM should increase flows to the Everglades during dry periods, creating more capacity to safely capture water in the lake during the wet season.

This will decrease the likelihood of toxic discharges east and west, and provide dry season hydration to Everglades National Park, thereby reducing the risk of wildfires. It will also recharge the Biscayne Aquifer that serves as the water supply for millions.

“Everglades restoration is certainly not the only solution to the global climate crisis, but it is one of the most substantial things that can be done now to achieve progress on climate change, and support the key industries that drive Florida’s robust economy,” said The Everglades Foundation’s CEO Eric Eikenberg. “We know our water infrastructure is just as important as highways, bridges and airports to our state’s tourism, recreation and real estate-driven economy. Funding for Everglades restoration is paramount.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Legislature have made the Everglades a priority, advancing the state’s share of restoration funding on an expedited basis. The Legislature has just allocated $342 million toward Everglades restoration, and Florida’s Congressional delegation is united in asking the federal government for $725 million per year over the next four years to keep Everglades restoration on track. This will also bring the federal contribution closer to a 50-50 share.

America’s Everglades is unique — a global treasure that belongs to each of us. Florida will continue to rely on a healthy Everglades ecosystem through this century and beyond. We must continue the momentum behind Everglades restoration to benefit the industries that are crucial to Florida’s 21st century economy and to every Floridian.

Dr. Stephen Davis is the Chief Science Officer for The Everglades Foundation. “The Invading Sea” is the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of news organizations across the state focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.