Palm Beach Post

January 13, 2008

 

Everglades project can ease harm of climate change, scientist says

by Robert King

 

CAPTIVA Global warming means South Florida faces a future of eroded coasts, flooded barrier islands, mud-clogged bays, dying coral reefs, swaths of dead mangroves and saw grass, and shorelines reeking with blooming algae, a University of Miami scientist warned environmentalists Saturday.

 

But Harold Wanless offered one glimmer of hope: Restoring the Everglades can postpone some of the damage - but only if it's done right. That means recreating enough of the marsh's natural flow to rebuild eroded peat, which could hold back the salt and protect South Florida's drinking water supply.

 

"Everglades restoration is more important than ever," Wanless told hundreds of activists, engineers and state and federal leaders at the Everglades Coalition's annual conference. Even so, he said Florida faces a grim fate if scientists' worst fears are realized about the melting of glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland.

 

"We have set into motion a monster," said Wanless, who chairs the university's department of geological sciences. "I wish I was writing you a novel. But unfortunately this is, as far as we can see, very real."

 

Wanless' presentation cast a brief pall over the four-day Everglades gathering.

 

"I have never heard this room so silent," said Frank Jackalone, Florida director of the Sierra Club.

 

The warnings also caught the attention of leading appointees of Gov. Charlie Crist, who has made the fight against global warming one of his major environmental initiatives.

 

"Those are the worst effects of climate change - that is the do-nothing alternative," said Michael Sole, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, adding that Crist is seeking ways to limit greenhouse-gas pollution and blunt the worst of the damage. "If people wait to see what happens, the cost of taking action is going to grow."

 

Eric Buermann, chairman of the board of the South Florida Water Management District, said he's taken Wanless' words to heart. "We need to get Everglades restoration moving."

 

Wanless said he doesn't know whether existing restoration plans would build up enough peat in the Everglades to forestall the harm to the region's freshwater aquifers. Some environmentalists say the plans would provide too little flowing water while relying too much on unmoving reservoirs.

 

Hours after Wanless' talk, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson unveiled a proposal to make the fight against global warming work to the Everglades' advantage. He wants the Everglades to get as much as $1.4 billion from a proposed federal program that could generate billions of dollars from greenhouse-gas polluters.

 

The legislation, sponsored by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and John Warner, R-Va., would order cuts in carbon dioxide emissions and set up auctions in which many polluters would have to buy permits.

 

The bill would allow some of the money to go to aquatic habitats threatened by climate change, including the Everglades. Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said the restoration - the world's biggest environmental recovery effort - deserves its share.

 

"Despite the fact that now most scientists agree that the River of Grass is one of the world's most endangered places, there are still leaders in Washington who would drop it to the bottom of the nation's agenda," Nelson told the gathering, which drew more than 300 people.

 

He urged the Everglades activists to demand similar commitments from this year's presidential candidates.

 

The pollution-credits program wouldn't begin bringing in money until 2012 at the earliest, so help for the Everglades wouldn't be imminent. But Nelson said it would be a start to fulfilling the federal government's promises to pay for half of the multi-decade restoration.

 

Wanless said one key question is how much time the Everglades has left. He said conservative estimates from scientists predict a 2-foot increase in sea levels by the end of this century, but other research indicates that the rise could amount to 20 feet by 2200 - enough to put all of South Florida under water.

 

"I've heard climate scientists that say, 'I think it's hopeless and I think we've really lost it,' but I'm going to do everything I can to fight it," Wanless said. "Because we have to. That's our responsibility, isn't it?"