FLAMINGO, Florida — Grabbing a clump of vegetation to steady herself, Tiffany Troxler gingerly slides her feet along the makeshift boardwalk as she ventures out into the marsh. The boards sag, dipping her up to her knees in the tea-colored water.
“This is the treacherous part,” the Florida International University researcher says. “The water levels are up.”
To a layman, this patch of brown-green saw grass and button mangrove deep inside Everglades National Park looks healthy enough, but Troxler knows trouble lurks just beneath the murky surface. She points to a clump of grass: Beneath the water line, the soil has retreated about a foot, leaving the pale root mass exposed. It is evidence that the thick mat of peat supporting this ecosystem is collapsing — and research suggests encroaching sea water is to blame.
“You can think about these soils as your bank account,” says Troxler, associate director of FIU’s Sea Level Solutions Center. “In the condition that this marsh is right now, the outlook is not good.”
Formed roughly 5,000 years ago, during a time of sea level rise, the Everglades once comprised an area twice the size of New Jersey. But over the course of just the last century, about half of the Everglades’ original footprint has been lost — plowed under or paved over, never to be recovered, so long as South Florida’s 8 million human inhabitants claim it for their homes, livelihoods and recreation.
The glades have been sapped by canals and dams that remapped the landscape and altered animal habitats, polluted by upstream agricultural areas, transformed by invasive species. And now, rising sea levels — this time, caused by man — threaten to undo what it took nature millennia to build.
What the Army Corps of Engineers calls a “highly managed system,” others have sardonically labeled a “Disney Everglades.”
Nearly two decades and $4 billion into the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, an ambitious federal-state program adopted in 2000, new data about the pace of climate change have called into question how much of the Everglades can ever be restored.
“I tend to think that everything can be saved,” says Fred Sklar of the South Florida Water Management District, which monitors and runs much of the Everglades’ infrastructure. “Restored is another question.”
Today, we understand that natural systems like the untouched Everglades provide enormous benefits — water filtration, nurseries for fish and other wildlife, protection from storm surges, even carbon sequestration. But to 19th-century Floridians, all that water — and the mosquitos and reptiles it harbored — represented an impediment to progress.
Now, some of the same canals and levees and pumps that helped drain the Everglades are being used to try to save them. Alongside the Everglades Agricultural Area, the 700,000-acre checkerboard of sugar cane and winter vegetable fields south of Lake Okeechobee, huge tracts are being converted to store and clean water for use when and where it is needed.
Perhaps the biggest step toward that end so far is the re-engineering of Tamiami Trail, the east-west highway that essentially has acted as a dike through the heart of the Everglades since the 1920s. Since 2013, workers have elevated 3.3 miles of the roadway, allowing water to flow freely into Shark River Slough, historically the deepest and wettest part of the Everglades.
“We’re starting to see the vegetation respond, and we’re getting more of those marsh grasses, more of those open water sloughs,” says Stephen Davis, a senior ecologist with the Everglades Foundation. “I’m very confident that we can restore this ecosystem. And by restoration, I mean enhancing the functionality of what remains.”