A wetter Everglades on path to restoration

Looking south from bridges carrying Tamiami Trail over the Florida Everglades in Miami-Dade County, you could have seen something that had not happened in 100 years.

On a summer day, water again flowed into the southern Everglades from the Tamiami Canal. Not as a trickle. Not as a stream.

Here, water again flowed from north to south as a sheet – a wide, steady flow that’s almost imperceptible, but so crucial to inching what remains of the Everglades ever closer to what it looked like before people dug canals to drain the famed River of Grass for agriculture and development.

The flows under the Tamiami Trail bridges are the result of series of tests to see where the water goes and how the southern Everglades is handling more water after a century of deprivation.

Researchers from FIU’s Institute of Environment and the South Florida Natural Resources Center of Everglades National Park have been tracking the flow of water here as part of the federally and state funded Everglades restoration efforts. In a new study on the impacts of the water releases, scientists have found water covering more areas of the Everglades for longer stretches of the year.

South of Tamiami Trail’s 1-mile bridge, a recent photograph from Institute of Environment researcher John Kominoski shows the transformation that’s been underway since water started flowing in 2016.

In the foreground, a wide expanse of water dominates the photo. Tips of vegetation barely manage to peek out. Farther back, areas of higher elevation – ridges – appear healthy and green.

“It’s amazing that you can transform a lot of the area,” Kominoski said. “We’re starting to see vegetation change and declines in phosphorus in some wetlands as a result of the water being there longer. That’s good. That’s what restoration is trying to do.”

Before the restoration efforts began, the area would have looked much different, much drier. It was also much more vulnerable to drought and fire until more water was routed under the portions of Tamiami Trail that are elevated or a hurricane provided rainfall.

“The study of changing flow and downstream ecological changes in Everglades National Park shows the promise of Everglades restoration can be realized,” said David Rudnick, an Everglades National Park ecologist who help design, manage and co-author the study. “With completion of Tamiami Trail flow tests in August, we built a foundation for the next generation of Everglades restoration projects which are starting to be built to more fully and naturally bring water back to the Park and revive the River of Grass.”

Dry and wet pulses are good for the Everglades but extended periods of either are troublesome, causing plants to die and phosphorus to flood the system. That leads to a raft of problems including peat collapse in in marshes near the Gulf of Mexico, likely caused by soil drying and saltwater intrusion. 

Researchers will continue to study how much these continued releases of water change the Everglades for the better.

“We still have so much more to learn about where restoration will take us,” Kominoski said.

The study was published recently in the journal Restoration Ecology.

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