America's Largest Ecosystem Restoration Project Is on the Verge of Moving Ahead on Earth Day

Forget the organic soy green latte or earth-toned yoga mat with a smiling bamboo tree on it, or other random schlock for Earth Day. The fate of one of the largest ecosystem restoration projects in the world hangs in the balance at a meeting up in Washington D.C. on Earth Day.

Unfortunately, the average person has no idea why this is significant. And why would they? It will be a meeting of bureaucrats in suits and military regalia, fluent in the strange tongue of acronyms.

I am referring to the Army Corps of Engineers Civil Works Review Board at Army Corps headquarters next Tuesday, where they will be considering the fate of the Central Everglades Planning Project, a suite of critical projects within the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

Let's back up. Why do we need to restore the Everglades? You like water, right? One in three Floridians depend on the Everglades for fresh drinking water. You like to live on dry land, at least most of the year? Everglades restoration will help protect urban areas from flooding. You might even like birds and alligators? This project restores habitat for areas that have long suffered severe degradation from the lack of freshwater flows. How about a healthy economy? A study showed that for every dollar invested in Everglades restoration, four dollars are gained.

Last century, when it seemed like the logical thing to do, the government dredged thousands of miles of canals throughout South Florida to drain wetlands and pave the way for development. Unfortunately, they were too good at it. Years later, they realized that the billions of gallons flowing to tide weekly were needed to replenish our water supply.

In 2000, the Federal and Florida governments unveiled a joint plan to help restore the natural flow of water through the Everglades. It is known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, and includes over 60 projects across 18,000 square miles to store, clean and flow fresh water in the right places at the right times. Incidentally, it is the largest ecosystem restoration project in the United States.

Since then, we have made pretty good progress on the projects in the periphery of the system. But a few years ago, the National Research Council reported that classic ridge and slough landscapes through the center of the system were continuing to deteriorate, almost to the point of no return. The state and federal restoration partners sprang into action to fast track elements of the plan to re-hydrate these treasured wetlands.

They bundled several Everglades restoration projects in the plan to flow clean water south through the system to replenish Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, while helping to protect coastal estuaries from further damage.

Amidst a parade of stakeholders, agency jargon, a jungle of acronyms and platitudes that you'd need a machete to hack through, the "Central Everglades Planning Project," or "CEPP" was born.

In its simplest terms, CEPP redistributes water throughout the ecosystem for a more natural flow, rehydrating areas of the Everglades that have long thirsted for water. If the full Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan were an orchestra, the projects that have been built so far are single instruments playing a few notes. CEPP is an ensemble of various instruments, harmonizing to finally make the tune recognizable. It is the essence of restoration.

So far, the planning stage is complete. Last week, in a meeting packed with supporters, the state partner in Everglades restoration -- the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board -- unanimously approved this project. This was no small feat. The state put in an incredible effort to resolve funding, water quality, and water supply issues from concerned stakeholders to make this key vote happen.

But before it can move any further, there is yet another critical bureaucratic hoop -- the Army Corps Civil Works Review Board meeting on Earth Day.

It is important that the Corps approves CEPP now, so that Congress can include it in the current Water Resources and Redevelopment Act. What the heck is that? It is federal legislation that can authorize the project, allowing construction to move forward. If the Corps fails to meet the congressional deadline, it is likely that the action will be delayed for years. Meanwhile, the ecosystem continues to degrade, and the Everglades demands action.

No excuses, Obama Administration. CEPP must be approved on Earth Day.

So as you celebrate Earth Day this Tuesday, know that something really exciting is on the verge of happening for Everglades restoration -- even if barely anyone is watching.

Photo of a Great Blue Heron in Everglades National Park by Tabitha Cale