Despite being known for its abundance of water, Florida is predicted to face high-risk water shortages in the near future, said experts at a panel discussion in Washington, D.C.
“We are giving ourselves the luxury of throwing [water] away because we have removed pieces of the Everglades that used to hold that water in the ecosystem,” commented Celeste de Palma, Director of Everglades Policy at Audubon Florida.
The “River of Grass” is the largest wetlands in North America. Though it’s twice the size of New Jersey, 50 percent has been lost to agricultural development in the last century as it’s been drained for urban and agricultural development.
“The Everglades provides drinking water for one in three Floridians,” de Palma said during the September 15 discussion sponsored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. “We are talking about the drinking water for 8 million people.” That includes 90 percent of South Florida’s drinking water, about eight billion gallons a day.
The effects of climate change and population growth continue to threaten this vital ecosystem. As sea levels rise and toxic algae continue to bloom, the Everglades will become susceptible to saltwater intrusion and pollution.
One answer is Everglades restoration, which will promote resiliency. But environmental activists such as de Palma contend the powerful sugar industry, which owns millions of acres north of the Everglades, has played a detrimental role by letting runoff containing chemicals flow into Lake Okeechobee, the state’s largest freshwater lake and the headwaters of the Everglades.
The U.S. House of Representatives recently approved legislation to fund an Everglades restoration project, but the U.S. Senate has yet to vote on it. The legislation would provide $200 million – which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it needs.
The State of Florida has been working with the federal government on long-term restoration projects for the Everglades, with the federal government matching state expenditures. While both Florida senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott support the funding legislation and President Trump has indicated he would sign it into law, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has so far not brought the measure up for consideration.
“For the last seven years, we’ve had projects in the works that are ready to address the problem of water scarcity,” adds de Palma. “But they are not getting authorized and without that authorization, we can’t get the funding.”