Climate change and sea level rise put Everglades freshwater at risk

Sandeep Varry, a writer for The Beacon at Florida International University, went to the Everglades to be inspired by its natural beauty. However, while he was there for a class project, he noticed that the Everglades weren’t as beautiful as they used to be.

“After going to the Everglades I realized how climate change could affect the plants and animals,” Varry said. “Humans weren’t the only ones facing the consequences of climate change.”

Varry, like many South Floridians, is realizing how climate change’s effect on sea levels is threatening the Everglades’ unique ecosystem and the fresh water supplied to Miami-Dade County residents.

One of the biggest effects of sea level rise on the Florida Everglades is saltwater intrusion, said Donald McNeill, a senior scientist in the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. Intrusion occurs when sea levels rise to a point where they begin to encroach on freshwater aquifers as well as the Everglades.

Florida Everglades face threats from climate change from Trevor Green on Vimeo.

Saltwater intrusion is critical because most of Miami-Dade pumps water from the ground and as salt water intrudes, water must come from more inland sources, McNeill said.

“As we pump more freshwater out it allows the saltwater to start to fill that space,” he said. “The salts are intruding in and mixing with the freshwater; it is a process that we help along by pumping out the freshwater.”

A huge concern for many ecologists studying the Everglades is whether the Everglades can stay resilient, said Gina Maranto, the director of ecosystem science and policy at the UM. In ecology, resilience is the ability of an ecosystem to adapt or respond to a disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly.

If a particular disturbance is too prolonged or it occurs at too fast a rate for the ecosystem to handle, the ecosystem will crash and never recover.

“Ecosystems can cycle through, they’re resilient,” Maranto said.  “[Ecosystems] can take certain shots, they can take fires and they can take droughts. They can tolerate it for so long and then they crash. The question is can they reorganize and come back again.”

Because most of South Florida either depends on natural aquifers or the Everglades for its primary source of freshwater, restoring correct water flow in the Everglades is of vital importance.

Several projects are under way to change how water is managed in South Florida, said Cara Capp, the Everglades Restoration Program manager at the National Parks Conservation Association. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan provides a framework for these projects and aims to restore, preserve and protect the water resources of Florida.

One such project is the Tamiami Trail Restoration Project, which entails raising the Tamiami Trail and creating a bridge, Capp said. The Tamiami Trail is a highway that connects Tampa and Miami and cuts through the Everglades.

“The Everglades should historically flow from Lake Okeechobee … into Everglades National Park, but that roadway really cuts off what the historic flow should be,” Capp said. “So the plan for years has been to raise the road, to bridge portions of the Tamiami Trail so that water can flow underneath and we can bring back that more historic water flow pattern.”

The water from the Everglades puts pressure on the Floridan aquifers, forcing water up into the wells and pumps, said Gary Matthews, an airboat pilot who already is seeing the effects of lowered water levels.

“Right now there is no water. My airboats have been sitting in a compound for six months,” Matthews said.

“I’m out of business. I’m literally out of business because of what they have done to the Everglades.”

All of South Florida is dependent on the Everglades. Whether they depend on the freshwater from the Everglades or as their primary source of income, losing the Everglades would have serious effects not only the Florida economy but also Florida as a whole.

“People should act before it’s too late and they lose something so unique,” Varry said.