An Environmental Reversal of Fortune

The Kissimmee's Revival Could
Provide Lessons for Restoring the Everglades

Publication: Washington Post
Printed: Wednesday, June 26, 2002
Written By: Michael Grunwald, Staff Writer

This series, based on more than 200 interviews and thousands of pages of documents, shows that the $7.8 billion plan to restore the Everglades may result in little restoration but will certainly increase water supplies for Florida residents, farmers and businesses, who already lead the nation in per-capita water consumption.

FLORIDA, Fla. The Kissimmee River used to run wild, rambling from Orlando down to Lake Okeechobee, zigzagging across its floodplain like a drunken unicyclist. Then the Army Corps of Engineers tamed it, slicing off its hairpin turns, locking it into a straight and reliable channel that never overflowed its banks.

It wasn't really a river anymore. It was renamed the C-38 Canal.

Now the Corps and its partners in the South Florida Water Management District are setting some of the Kissimmee free again. In June 2000, Lou Toth, the water district's top Kissimmee biologist, stomped on a detonator and blew up one of the dams holding the C-38 in place. Today, the seven-mile stretch of canal that Toth turned loose is a 14-mile stretch of river, twisting and turning and doubling back again, re-creating wetlands and rejuvenating wildlife.

This $518 million project is the most ambitious river restoration ever attempted. It has been visited by Japanese, British, Brazilian, Italian and Hungarian officials hoping to fix their own rivers. And Corps and water district leaders call it a model for their $7.8 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan a few miles south. If the Everglades is the test of how ecological mistakes can be fixed, they say, the Kissimmee is proof that success is possible.

"The lesson of the Kissimmee is that restoration works," said Stuart Appelbaum, who is managing Everglades restoration for the Corps. "It's the laboratory for a lot of what we're doing in the Everglades."

But many scientists warn that the Everglades project's leaders have ignored the lessons of the Kissimmee's success -- that America's largest effort to restore an entire ecosystem may give ecosystem restoration a bad name. And one of those scientists is Lou Toth, who was named the water district's 2001 employee of the year for his leadership on the Kissimmee.

He believes Everglades restoration is on a path to failure -- because it's led by engineers instead of scientists, it's a multipurpose water project instead of a clear restoration project and it tightens human control of nature instead of letting nature heal itself.

"They just don't get it," says Toth, who has worked on the Kissimmee since 1984. "I hate to say it, but these guys haven't learned anything about restoring an ecosystem."

In their 1950s film "Waters of Destiny," Corps officials boasted in stentorian tones about taming "water that once ran wild." Today's Corps officials laugh off "Waters of Destiny" as kitsch; after presiding over the deterioration of the Everglades for decades, they say they are ready to engineer its recovery. The question is whether they can replicate their Kissimmee achievements without reprising their Kissimmee methods.

There is no doubt that restoring the River of Grass amid subdivisions and strip malls will be harder than restoring a normal river amid cattle pastures. Leaders of the Everglades restoration say they can't just get rid of man-made barriers to flow and let nature run its course -- not when the barriers include such cities as Weston and Wellington and the entire Florida sugar industry.

"The Kissimmee restoration is like: 'Oops, we dropped something, let's pick it up.' It's immediate," said Tommy Strowd, the water district's operations director. "But the Everglades is different. We can't just go back to nature."

No one is asking the restoration's leaders to evacuate the developed half of the historic Everglades. But many scientists believe the remaining half can be far more natural than it is, that a more natural restoration would provide faster, cheaper and more certain ecological results than the current plan. The Everglades restoration plan is flexible, but it is scheduled to start moving dirt in 2004; now is when it would be easiest to fix.

"This is an unbelievably expensive restoration plan. There ought to be restoration in it," said Columbia University ecologist Stuart Pimm, who studies Everglades sparrows.

For now, the plan's benefits to the Everglades remain backloaded and uncertain, while its water-supply benefits to people and farms are relatively swift and sure. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), a key Everglades advocate who is also the Kissimmee's political godfather, compares the Everglades plan to open-heart surgery. He's afraid that if the ecosystem is hemorrhaging on the operating table after 10 years and $4 billion, Congress will try to pull the plug.

"You look at the Kissimmee, and you see it can be done," he said. "Now we have to do it."


In 1886, a Harper's writer discovered "the wild beauty of the Kissimmee River," describing "grasses and vines as graceful as Nature's hand could fling abroad." On the restored stretch of the Kissimmee, newly released from its man-made straitjacket, the wild beauty is back.

The river's long-buried sandbars are re-emerging. Scores of gators sun themselves on its banks. The wax myrtles that invaded its drained floodplain are dying now that the wetlands are wet again. On a recent airboat tour, Toth -- who looks like a sunburned and long-haired version of the TV action hero Nash Bridges -- showed off a shallow broadleaf marsh that has reappeared alongside the river, a green tangle of willow shrubs and knee-high plants.

"Two years ago," he said, "this was a dry cattle pasture."

If the floodplain is this transformed already, he was asked, what will it look like in a decade?

"Like this!" Toth laughed. "It's natural again. All we had to do was get out of its way."

The Corps has channelized rivers nationwide, often with devastating environmental results. But its conquest of the Kissimmee stands out as a marvel of engineering brilliance and ecological folly, described by the late Everglades author Marjory Stoneman Douglas as "among the most radical alterations of a river in human history." At the request of the state of Florida, the Corps wrestled a meandering and unpredictable 103-mile river into a 56-mile ditch that never overflowed its banks. The $35 million project was designed to whisk floodwaters away from Orlando, Disney World and the upper Kissimmee basin, and it succeeded.

But the project destroyed the basin's biology; it dried up 35,000 acres of its wetlands, chased away 92 percent of its waterfowl and 74 percent of its bald eagles and ruined its sport fishing. The project also conveyed tons of filthy cattle runoff into Lake Okeechobee.

Immediately after the project's completion, in 1971, activists such as Art Marshall, a crusading biologist, and Douglas, the grande dame of the ecosystem, began agitating to undo it. The first meeting of the Everglades Coalition -- now the official network of South Florida environmentalism -- was held along the Kissimmee; restoring the river was the coalition's top priority for years.

"People said: 'Oh, my God. What have we done?' " recalled Graham, who was a young state legislator at the time. In 1976, he helped get the state to study a possible restoration project. But the Corps, a federal waterworks agency that had never worked on restoration, concluded in 1985 that the state's plan, "while generally beneficial for environmental concerns, would not contribute to the nation's economic development."

So Graham, who had served as Florida's governor and then moved on to the Senate, rammed through language authorizing the Corps to take on environmental projects, which are now one-fifth of its total workload. In 1992, Congress approved the state's plan to backfill 22 miles of the C-38 and demolish two of its six control structures, in order to restore 43 miles of river and 40 square miles of wetlands. The one constraint on restoration was that the plan could not increase the flood risks to anyone in the basin.

Initially, there was vocal opposition from property owners who feared flooding. Local ranchers distributed a video of a leisurely boat trip down the canal, with "Let It Be" playing in the background. Realists Opposed to Alleged Restoration, a group of residents of a subdivision and two trailer parks at the canal's edge, vowed a furious fight. But as Toth put it, "the objections of most landowners were bought off with pure cash." The project's leaders have acquired 90,000 acres from willing sellers. ROAR has quieted to a whisper.

"We're not too active anymore," said ROAR's president, Helen Jordan. "The project isn't as bad as we thought. We still think it's a waste of money, but we've accepted it."

After 12.5 million cubic yards of fill were moved -- imagine a football field piled more than two miles high -- the project's leaders completed Phase One two years ago. The benefits to the restored stretch of river have been instant and obvious. Oxygen levels are increasing, so native fish such as largemouth bass and black crappie are returning. So are skinny-legged wading birds -- great blue and tricolor and black-crowned night herons, glossy and white ibis, roseate spoonbills with dazzling pink coats. Shorebirds and waterfowl are back, too. By contrast, in the unrestored ditch, there are few fish but gar and bowfin, and few birds but cattle egrets.

"It's an amazing achievement," said Col. James G. May, the Corps commander in Florida.

Toth, however, believes the Kissimmee's success has been achieved despite the Corps.

The water district developed the plan; the Corps resisted for years. Toth said he still battles Corps engineers who "just see this as a construction project. You know -- move the dirt."

Corps engineers wanted to armor some of the restored river with rock; he insisted on natural banks. They wanted to dump excess fill into nearby wetlands; he argued that the whole point of restoration is to preserve wetlands. Toth jokes about one Corps contractor who kept asking about "the old river" -- by which he meant the canal. Phase Two is already two years behind schedule, in part because the Corps has shifted personnel to the Everglades.

"The Kissimmee restoration is a tremendous bright spot," said John Marshall, who runs an environmental foundation named for Art Marshall, his uncle. "But the Everglades restoration is still an irrational mess. The Corps hasn't learned anything."

"It's a wonderful project," said Juanita Greene, vice president of Friends of the Everglades, the grass-roots group founded by Douglas. "I wish I could say the same about Everglades restoration."

Toth hates to offend his bosses after they made him employee of the year, but he agrees that the Everglades restoration's leaders have missed the point of the Kissimmee. In fact, the dirt-moving alone from the Everglades project will destroy more wetlands than the entire Kissimmee project will restore. "They're doing the opposite of what we did," he said.

A closer model, the critics warn, is a project called Modified Water Deliveries.


In 1989, Congress authorized the $85 million "Mod Waters" to produce more natural water flows to Everglades National Park. It was the first Everglades restoration effort by the Corps, and it was supposed to herald a new era.

"We have fashioned balanced bipartisan legislation which will help restore an international treasure," Graham announced at the time.

Thirteen years later, Mod Waters has yet to deliver a drop of water to the park, and its price tag has risen to $191 million. It has been bogged down by lawsuits over flood control, property rights and endangered species. Its two hulking floodgates along the Tamiami Trail have never been used; they loom above the highway, concrete monuments to bureaucratic paralysis. In 1999, Rep. James V. Hansen (R-Utah) groused at a hearing that "we will all be pushing up daisies before you fully get it resolved," and nothing has proved him wrong.

Terry Rice, who approved Mod Waters when he was a Corps colonel but now works for the Miccosukee tribe, called the project "a terrible quagmire." His wife, Joette Lorion, a former Friends of the Everglades president who works with him, called it an "absolute catastrophe."

"If they can't do Mod Waters, how on earth will they do [Everglades restoration]?" she asked.

Mod Waters was designed to shift flows from the flooded west side to the parched east side of Shark River Slough, the park's main flowway through the southern Everglades. It was also supposed to provide flood protection to the 8.5 Square Mile Area, a community of 350 homes and small farms on the wet side of the Everglades protective levee. The project would also relieve flooding on Miccosukee land in the central Everglades.

Here's a summary of the 13-year saga: Park officials and many environmentalists have pushed to buy out the entire 8.5 community, arguing that the waterlogged area never should have been homesteaded in the first place, and that building levees to protect it would dry out 30,000 acres of marshes and defeat the whole purpose of Mod Waters.

Community leaders and the Miccosukees have fought for the original plan, accusing park officials of arrogance, extremism and even racism against the area's Cuban Americans. The plight of a homely endangered bird called the Cape Sable seaside sparrow -- dubbed Goldilocks because, like the Everglades itself, it needs just the right amount of water -- has complicated everything.

The result is that no one is getting along -- even though the Corps has hired dispute resolution experts -- and nothing is getting restored.

The Corps, said Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Bradford Sewell, has balanced the warring interests "with all the grace of a megatanker in a bathtub." Sewell sued to protect the sparrow. The 8.5 residents sued to keep their homes. The Miccosukees sued to stop flooding on their lands. A federal magistrate accused the Corps of having "driven a Mack truck" through federal regulations. In an internal e-mail, Corps hydrologist Michael Choate accused park scientists of declaring a "jihad" against the Corps and the water district in order to flood Indians, homeowners and farmers.

"They think they are fighting a holy war against the infidels," Choate wrote. "It's going to take strong leadership and possibly a chopped-off hand or firing squad to get out of this."

Ultimately, the Corps proposed a partial buyout of the 8.5 area and pledged to complete the project next year. But last month, the magistrate recommended that the Corps go back to the drawing board. Environmentalists wonder: If the government can't get a few families to move to help restore a vital slice of the Everglades, how is it going to restore the entire 18,000-square-mile ecosystem?

Meanwhile, the C-111 Project, a related 1994 plan designed to boost flows to the park's other key flowway, Taylor Slough, has been stymied by similar flood-control wars pitting the park against farmers. C-111 hasn't sent a drop of water south, either.

"I could not think of worse advertisements for Everglades restoration," Sewell said.


So why has the Kissimmee restoration worked so well? Toth's first lesson could be summarized as: Just do it. His second lesson is: Let it flow.

Toth said he made one major design compromise, agreeing to leave eight extra miles of the ditch in place to make sure the project maintained flood control around Orlando's chain of lakes. His point is that the Kissimmee's designers didn't worry much about appeasing political interests. They just focused on reviving the river. Their solution was simple: Buy out ranches in the floodplain, blow up control structures and let nature run its course. It's an expensive solution -- about $20,000 per acre of restored wetlands -- but it's delivering as promised.

"This is about as pure as a restoration project can get," Toth said. "It's not about making all the stakeholders happy. It's not manipulating nature and managing different parts of the system for different things. We just went out and did our best for the environment."

Everglades restoration, by contrast, is a highly complex creature of consensus.

Its original blueprint was unanimously approved by a commission including representatives of just about every Florida interest group; their lobbyists and consultants still battle over just about every decision. The restoration plan is designed to supply water to farms and people as well as to the Everglades, and it is committed to providing enough for people to help South Florida's population double. One water district report from 2000 predicted that the plan would satisfy urban needs by 2010 and agricultural needs by 2015, but would reach only "minimum flows and levels" to stop environmental damage to the Everglades by 2020.

The plan's leaders say it's unfair to judge them by the Kissimmee's standards. It's one thing to buy out the cattle pastures in the Kissimmee floodplain, but millions of people live in the Everglades floodplain. The Florida Legislature never would have passed the plan if it were purely environmental.

"The politics are very tricky. We walk a fine line," said John Ogden, the water district's chief Everglades scientist. "I'm not saying we've got a perfect plan. I'm saying that some very idealistic ecologists have worked on this for 10 years, and this is where we are."

But many ecologists believe that the plan ignores the Kissimmee's second lesson: that it will be impossible to fix the Everglades without restoring more of the slow-moving sheet flow that once crept south across its sawgrass plains from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.

There is no way to remove such communities as Miami Springs and Kendall Lakes and Sweetwater from the historic Everglades. Rather, the ecologists want to remove a diagonal levee and raise Tamiami Trail, the two biggest barriers inside the existing Everglades, and buy more sugar fields below the lake for water storage. They want to undo as much as possible of what man has done.

While official brochures say the restoration plan will remove 240 miles of levees and canals, they do not mention that it will add 500 miles of levees and canals. Most of the new structures will be outside the Everglades, but the plan mostly seeks to restore natural depths rather than natural flows, shipping water wherever it's needed from wherever it's stored instead of reconnecting a fragmented ecosystem. Strowd said the district's water-moving system for South Florida is about to get "much, much, much more complex."

The project's leaders say they would love to obliterate obstacles in the Everglades, just as Toth did on the Kissimmee. The problem, they say, is that their advanced computer models show that a freer and more connected Everglades would not be a healthier one. They say that when they ran these "let it rip" scenarios through their advanced computer models, the north of the Everglades got too dry and the east got too wet. Now that the natural area has been narrowed and its soil has eroded, they say, the Everglades can never really flow properly again.

"It feels so right to remove those barriers," Appelbaum said. "It just doesn't work."

"It comes down to values," Corps hydrologist Richard Punnett said. "Do you believe it should be natural, or do you believe it should be more like the Everglades?"

But many scientists believe a more natural, more connected and less complex system would be more like the Everglades. The restoration's own science team has warned that the plan seriously underestimates the value of flow and connectivity. One of the water district's own studies has found that unfettered flow was vital to the life-nourishing topography of the historic Everglades, sculpting minuscule but crucial shifts in elevation between six-inch-high ridges and sloughs. Pimm, the Columbia ecologist, snorts that only an engineer could use a phrase like "let it rip" to describe the almost glacial pace of an unblocked River of Grass.

"Nature was doing fine before we started messing with it," he said. "This needs to be a free-flow system. But the engineers won't let it go."

In fact, technical documents show that the plan's own hydrology modelers found that a more natural water regime could provide more benefits to the Everglades.

The documents date to June 1999, not long after Everglades National Park officials had warned that the plan "does not represent a restoration scenario for the southern, central and northern Everglades." Environmentalists were threatening to torpedo the restoration unless it provided solid environmental benefits by 2010, the halfway mark of the project's spending schedule. "The deal was, real progress in the first $4 billion, or no deal," said Tim Searchinger, a senior attorney at Environmental Defense.

So the modelers agreed to test a scenario that more closely mirrored the original flow, sending more water south to the Everglades from sugar land instead of using it for irrigation, moving more water through the diagonal levee.

The new scenario wasn't perfect. It mildly reduced water supply benefits and pooled more water in a troublesome corner of the central Everglades. But the modelers concluded it would produce "a series of improvements to the ecosystem" by 2010, including "vast improvements" to the park. It would also reduce the plan's reliance on expensive and speculative technologies. This model helped persuade some skeptical environmentalists to support the plan in Congress.

But the new scenario didn't make it into the final plan, and hasn't shown up in any planning documents since.

"It's never been heard from again," Searchinger said.

"It's just been sort of left out there," said Robert Johnson, the park's top scientist. "Hopefully, it will be addressed at some point."

Appelbaum said the new scenario has never been abandoned. After a series of interviews, he said the Corps was committed to pursuing it. "We want to help the environment as fast as we can," he said.


Michael Ornella is the Corps manager who's supposed to make the restoration's engineers run on time. His office walls in Jacksonville are covered with flow charts that look like spaghetti, with schedules tracking 52 projects over 38 years. There are constant meetings with the water district, with other agencies, with the public. Ornella understands why some people don't trust the Corps to save the Everglades, but he believes times are changing.

"The Corps has never done business like this," he said. "Our outreach used to be: 'Here's our 1,000-page report.' The weakness of the organization has been adjusting to the reality of an open society. What we're doing flies in the face of the traditional Corps."

But there was a sign of the traditional Corps in Ornella's office, too. On an easel near his desk, someone had outlined a presentation in red marker, including a reminder to "manipulate, massage data to get reports we need."

"The Corps has made a career out of losing people's trust," said Melissa Samet, who runs a Corps reform program for the group American Rivers. "We'd all be happy if they could turn that around on the Everglades, but it will take more than meetings to do that."

A Post series in 2000 detailed how the agency's leaders pushed to "grow the Corps" with wasteful and destructive water projects justified by skewed analyses. The General Accounting Office, the National Academy of Sciences and Pentagon investigators have documented similar problems.

Corps critics at environmental agencies and the Office of Management and Budget have been emboldened, and in March President Bush ousted Corps civilian chief Michael Parker for complaining about budget cuts. The Corps remains popular in Congress -- politicians love to bring home water projects -- but a new Corps Reform Caucus has begun pushing for an overhaul.

Now the Everglades restoration is supposed to showcase the Corps of the future, undoing its errors of the past. It is a mammoth challenge, full of technical, biological and political uncertainties. But Corps officials say they are eager to redeem themselves. They say they're committed to "adaptive management" and will fix the current plan as they go along.

"There are a lot of things we don't know that make us say 'whoa,' " Ornella says. "Nobody's ever done this before. We're going to have to adjust."

There is one sign that the Corps and the district can adapt the plan to the benefit of nature: the Indian River Lagoon Project, a $1 billion component designed to store water and restore North America's most biologically diverse estuary.

Environmentalists hated the original design of the project, which relied entirely on structural reservoirs, levees and pumps. But Corps project manager Laura Mahoney took time to listen to critics and get to know them; she stripped to her skivvies to go swimming with activist Maggie Hurchalla, the sister of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Janet Reno. The project was redesigned to restore 90,000 acres of wetlands and uplands, plug drainage ditches and mimic the area's natural flow. Environmentalists love it now.

"There was a basic distrust of the Corps: How can people who did so much harm find an environmentally sensitive solution?" Mahoney says. "But we meant it when we said we were going to be environmentalists on this. This won't just look natural; it will be natural."

But the Indian River project, like the Kissimmee, is in a sparsely developed area, and its emphasis on nonstructural solutions has been a rare exception. "We can't expect everything to go that well," Appelbaum said.

It hasn't. The National Academy of Sciences concluded in March that a $6 million Corps water-quality study in the Florida Keys was riddled with errors. Corps officials recently underestimated the price of a southwest Florida project because they assumed in calculations that muck at the bottom of a lake would be dry.

Today, 23 of the restoration's 52 projects are underway. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2004, but work is already behind schedule. Sens. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) have vowed to block a bill approving new Corps projects -- including several in the Everglades -- unless it includes overhauling the Corps.

The next few years will be crucial for the restoration. Its leaders must choose whether to start building a vital reservoir for the Everglades now, or to let sugar firms keep farming land the government has already bought. They must move pilot projects forward to test whether the plan's four uncertain technologies work. They must set "water baselines" that will help determine how much water people, farms and the Everglades will get. And they must scramble to acquire land needed for restoration before it gets snapped up.

Just last week, the Miccosukee tribe bought a 223-acre West Miami parcel within the project's footprint, then took out advertisements warning restoration managers: "We will make sure you do your job, even though it's quite obvious you don't have the slightest idea how to do it."

But the most important decisions the restoration's leaders face now are more structural choices about how it will work. For one thing, they must decide how much power to cede to scientists. Everyone seems to agree that for the Everglades to recover, "sound science" must be its salvation, but there are tensions over money and methods. The plan's legislation required an independent scientific panel, but the Corps and the district are trying to promote a panel led by the Corps and the district.

"There's a lot of talk about sound science, but it doesn't seem to affect the high-level decision-making," said Charles Groat, director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

The first major test of the plan should come soon, when Bush's administration unveils the regulations mandated by the plan to "ensure restoration success."

Environmental groups have threatened to withdraw their support for the plan unless its rules include strong requirements for ecological action and goals for ecological progress, as well as a leadership role for Interior, which has jurisdiction over Everglades National Park.

But the first draft of the rules had no goals and limited Interior's role to consultation. A new version of the rules circulating inside the administration would establish the plan's original model -- without the "vast improvements" for the park -- as the "expected performance level."

"If we can't fix this plan, it might not just doom the Everglades," Pimm said. "It might doom our chances of ever getting money to do restoration again."

The Everglades plan, after all, is already the model for a $20 billion plan to replumb California rivers and deltas, and a $15 billion effort to restore Louisiana coastal wetlands. It is being watched worldwide. Rice, the former Corps colonel, used to think it would blaze an environmental trail. Now he doesn't know what to think.

"If we can't solve these problems here, with all this science and all this money, how are we going to solve them in the developing world?" he asks. "I know it can be done. Why aren't we doing it?"

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