Report says Everglades restoration strategy must adapt to climate change impacts

As new evidence about climate change and sea-level rise in South Florida continues to emerge, the agencies responsible for the restoration of the Everglades must conduct a mid-course assessment that rigorously analyzes scenarios of future change to the region’s ecosystem in its planning.

That is the conclusion of a new congressionally-mandated report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

It’s the seventh biennial report on the progress of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a multi-billion dollar effort designed by the state and the federal government and launched in 2000 to reverse the decline of the Everglades. A large and treasured ecosystem, Everglades has been dramatically altered by drainage and water management infrastructure that was intended to improve flood control, urban water supply, and agricultural production.

The original CERP was created on a pre-drainage vision of the historical Everglades and the assumption that specific rainfall and temperatures observed during the 1965-1999 period of record captured the full range of changes expected throughout the 21st century. However, there is now significant evidence that the South Florida climate is changing and that sea-level rise is accelerating. These changes will have profound impacts on the region’s ecosystem and the ability of the water management infrastructure to provide flood protection and meet future water demands, the report warns.

Although the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) has begun to conduct forward-looking analyses for flood management projects outside of the restoration, CERP agencies do not adequately take these changes into account in project planning and have not systematically analyzed these threats in the context of the CERP, the report says. The information obtained through these analyses can potentially inform robust decisions about planning, funding, sequencing, and adaptive management.

The restoration efforts are likely to have noteworthy benefits that increase the resilience of the ecosystem in the face of climate change, but these benefits have not yet been adequately studied or quantified,” said Bill Boggess, professor of applied economics at Oregon State University and chair of the committee that authored the report. “With seven large projects to be constructed and three more nearing the end of their planning process, this is the opportune time for a mid course assessment.

A more rigorous analysis of potential effects of climate change and sea-level rise on restoration outcomes is necessary in planning for all projects, so that investments are designed for the system to be more resilient to future conditions, the report says.

Highlighting the progress made toward the restoration goals, the committee noted that the last two years have been marked by continued on-the-ground construction progress, the completion of two major foundational projects, Mod Waters and C-111 South Dade; and continued improvements in water quality.

In addition, impressive efforts have been made in the planning of four projects that propose additional storage of water – advancing a key CERP vision – since the last Academies report on CERP’s progress was released in 2016. These include the Everglades Agricultural Area Storage Reservoir, Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project, Western Everglades Restoration Project, and Loxahatchee River Watershed Project.

However, the plan lacks a holistic understanding of the benefits of the combined projects at a system wide level and their resilience to sea level rise and climate change.

As new information becomes available, the committee called for full implementation of adaptive management plans and improved monitoring to substantially increase learning about the restoration process. Adaptive management supports and improves decision-making as new knowledge surfaces about how the ecosystem is responding to restoration and to changing future conditions like climate change that may affect restoration outcomes.

Currently, only one of the three early CERP projects analyzed has an adaptive management plan. Without such a plan, the report says, it is difficult to structure monitoring and evaluation so that new knowledge can be applied in a flexible decision-making process.

Additionally, to ensure that the agencies have the latest scientific knowledge and tools to successfully plan and implement the restoration program, the committee recommended establishing a science program focused on understanding the impacts of current and future threats on the South Florida ecosystem.

The study was sponsored by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Department of the Interior, and South Florida Water Management District. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

Photo of lubber grasshoppers in the Everglades National Park by Storm Cunningham.

See National Academies website.

Order your copy of the report here.

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