FIU knowledge guiding massive Everglades restoration effort

After more than a century of developing, draining, and damming the Everglades, Floridians realized they not only were endangering the ecosystem's unique plants and animals but also the water resources humans depend on. Now, after more than a decade of intense public, political, and scientific debate, Florida is attempting to reshape the 'Glades once more, this time with the benevolent goal of "getting the water right."

Florida International University has focused more resources on the restoration effort than any other university, with more than 50 scientists and dozens of graduate students studying the ecosystem and winning more than $70 million in funding.

The expertise and data of FIU's scientists - especially those in its Southeast Environmental Research Center - help identify critical restoration projects, shape the plans for them, and make the scientific case to policymakers to get them funded. University researchers also monitor restoration projects to be sure they accomplish their aims and don't cause unintended harm.

"The FIU Everglades research program is an outstanding evaluation of critical South Florida ecosystem services," said Fred Sklar, director of Everglades sciences for the South Florida Water Management District. "These studies evaluate the environmental impacts of water management, water quality, and land use changes on the ecological processes that control the diversity, structure, and function of a national treasure. FIU does this within a complex world of socio-economic shifts and climate change, making this research relevant on a global scale."

Tamiami Trail Bridge

The Tamiami Trail, a road built in 1928, connects Tampa and Miami but cuts across the Everglades, blocking the natural flow of water from north to south.

Data gathered by Evelyn Gaiser, associate professor in Biological Sciences and SERC, and by colleagues at FIU and other state and federal agencies, persuaded politicians to spend $134 million to replace a one-mile section of the road with a bridge that will allow water to flow to Everglades National Park. The project broke ground in December 2009 a few miles northwest of Miami, and it should be complete in early 2013.

Once the water begins to flow, Gaiser and her colleagues will study the ecological impacts. The team is using data from its baseline studies to see whether the new water flow improves downstream water and soil quality and benefits vegetation, fish, and invertebrates. If so, she hopes that will persuade policymakers another 18 miles of bridges are needed.

"The one-mile bridge is a small step toward potentially delivering more water to the dehydrated areas south of the Tamiami Trail," she said.

Canal Reconstruction

FIU researchers are also watching a project to restore Taylor Slough and northeastern Florida Bay. A canal built in 1966 diverted freshwater from Taylor Slough, historically a deep-water feature in the eastern Everglades, that feeds into the bay. A project that began in January 2010 just outside the Homestead entrance of Everglades National Park will restore some freshwater flow.

According to Michael Ross, an associate professor in Earth and Environment and SERC, the project may improve habitat for animals like roseate spoonbills that live in Florida Bay. But Ross is monitoring the habitat of another bird: the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow, a federally endangered Everglades bird that lives in Taylor Slough, to see if the project has unintended consequences.

"Making Taylor Slough wetter, which is in keeping with its historical condition, also may adversely affect the sparrows, which have better success breeding in drier areas," he said.

Biscayne Bay Coastal Wetlands Restoration

Ross and his colleagues also conducted a pilot study that prompted construction of a new system of pumps and culverts in Biscayne Bay to restore freshwater flow.

Freshwater had been diverted from wetlands adjoining Biscayne Bay to make room for coastal development. "As a result, the waters of Biscayne Bay are unnaturally salty, replacing the freshwater marshes along the coast with salt marsh and mangrove forest and decimating oysters, blue crabs, and pink shrimp," said Ross.

He expects the increased freshwater flow to the bay to convert some of the mangrove and salt marsh back to freshwater marsh. But the results of his pilot project show that the new water won’t be enough to fully restore the bay. He hopes eventually to study the effects of the restoration project on vegetation in the area.

Much More to Do

Michael Heithaus, director of the School of Environment, Arts and Society, said FIU scientists will continue shaping the reshaping of the Everglades.

"Not only do our faculty members and students play an important role in enhancing our understanding of the ecosystem, they also play an important role in managing and restoring the ecosystem," he said. "There has been a very concerted effort to make sure that the science we do is useful for making management decisions."