ForumTo Restore the Everglades, It
Each year, agricultural production contributes billions to Florida's
economy. That one state is the nation's chief source of citrus and provides
about 70 percent of winter and spring vegetables. Sugarcane, rice, ornamentals,
and other valuable crops also thrive there especially in the south, where
favorable weather, unique soils, and managed water supply make for especially
But there has been a downside to this prodigious success. The extensive
system of dikes, levees, and canals constructed earlier in the century to
provide flood protection and regulate the water supply has also altered
patterns of waterflow through south Florida's diverse ecosystems.
The health of Everglades National Park and other conservation and wildlife
refuge areas, as well as of Florida Bay, is seen to be in serious trouble.
Nutrient runoff from crop, livestock, and dairy operations into waterways has
led to massive algae blooms and changed the composition of biological
communities in affected areas. Subsidence, or disappearance of soil as a result
of microbial action on the organic matter in drained wetlands, is another
Added to this mix of serious ecological threats are several non-native pest
plants that have gained a foothold in south Florida. They are not subject to
the natural controls present in their countries of origin.
The "Save Our Everglades" initiative enacted in 1983 by Florida
policymakers was the first attempt to address problems over the entire
Everglades ecosystem. The 1987 passage of the Surface Water Improvement and
Management Act created five regional water management districts. 1991 saw the
Florida legislature's Everglades Protection Act, which facilitated cooperation
among regional, state, and local agencies.
The effort took on national importance in 1993. A 5-year agreement signed
then by the federal Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, the Interior,
Justice, and Transportation along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
established an interagency federal task force to coordinate consistent
policies, plans, programs, and priorities in south Florida.
Next, the Florida legislature enacted the landmark Everglades Forever Act in
May of 1994. It established new water quality and delivery goals and a
mechanism for coordinating Everglades-related activities. The following year,
the federal task force was expanded to include the state of Florida, Native
American tribes, and the Governor's Commission for a Sustainable South Florida.
Now state and federal agencies with management and/or regulating
responsibilities are working together, and with many private cooperators, to
restore and maintain the ecological richness and species diversity of South
The goal of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's strategic plan for south
Florida is to maintain a profitable agricultural economy while developing
strategies that contribute to a healthy ecosystem and sustainable communities.
The plan has five main elements: land and water management, science,
infrastructure, land acquisition, and public information and education.
USDA believes that, properly managed, south Florida agriculture can
contribute to the restoration and maintenance of the area ecosystem.
Agriculture is a major source of support and revenue for restoration efforts.
Agricultural lands also contribute to ground and surface water storage and
recharge, filtration, nutrient uptake, buffer areas and wildlife habitat,
noxious weed control, and more.
The Agricultural Research Service is
an important component of the science element of USDA's strategic plan. The
agency's scientific expertise plays a key role in developing technologies to
achieve the ultimate goal of agricultural, economic, and ecological
For example, ARS entomologists are cooperating in the search for means to
stall the spread of melaleuca, a persistent woody plant pest aggressively
invading Florida's wetlands. Since neither herbicidal controls nor field
burning has proved to be effective, labor- intensive hand pulling and cutting
have been the primary control methods. Now, ARS scientists have tested and
released a promising biological control insect and are evaluating other
candidates, as well as integrated weed management programs and revegetation
with desirable plant species.
ARS plant breeders have a different role to play in shoring up both
agriculture and natural Everglades ecosystems. Some are looking at modifying
sugarcane so it needs less phosphorous fertilizer to thrive or even develops a
capacity to remove excess phosphorus from the soil. And breeding plants that
will tolerate higher water tables might eventually reduce soil subsidence and
make it possible to produce crops in a manner that actually enhances the
A budgetary increase for fiscal year 1998 has been identified for both
melaleuca and sugarcane projects, as well as for water quality and management
research. A new ARS hydrologist will be working with federal and state agencies
and the agricultural community to define the risk of flooding in Dade County
and recommend improvements in the south Florida water delivery system to
sustain agriculture and protect the Everglades National Park.
Dale A. Bucks
ARS National Program Leader
Water Quality and Water Management