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CONVERSATIONS: The Biden administration is putting record spending toward the Everglades. Where is it going?

Photo courtesy Everglades National Park
Photo courtesy Everglades National Park

The Everglades are getting record spending from the Biden administration. 

That includes a more than $1 billion allocation that the administration characterizes as the single largest investment ever in Everglades restoration. 

To understand where the money is going, WMFE environmental reporter Amy Green talked with Shannon Estenoz, assistant secretary in the Department of the Interior.

ESTENOZ: This is the implementation era. This is where we have got bulldozers on the ground. You know, this investment from the federal government really couldn't come at a better time.

And what it means is that restoration projects that have been long waiting for implementation are now going to be implemented. And it's not just the $1.1 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure law. It's also two consecutive record-breaking budget requests. So in just two short years the Biden administration has aimed almost $2 billion at Everglades restoration.

GREEN: We also had the completion last year of a major restoration at the Kissimmee River. A years-long effort to revise the rules for managing Lake Okeechobee is nearing the finish line. And as you said, it's the first time we've been able to see how these massive Everglades restoration projects are going to function together at a landscape scale. So what are we seeing? How is this working so far?

ESTENOZ: So our experience in the Kissimmee is, every time we'd finish a section of the Kissimmee, the river would return. It wouldn't just return. It would return like lickety-split. Like almost immediately the ecosystem would come back.

The good news is, is we're seeing exactly the same kind of response in the southern Everglades. So go all the way down to the bottom, and I just happened to be in Florida Bay. What they're telling me is that the new infrastructure that's now down at the bottom of the system, that is working so well that even though we're seeing kind of the typical, we're seeing an algae bloom in Florida Bay like we have many, many times. Salinity levels, instead of being twice the saltwater level of sea water, which is normally what we see with these algae blooms. Salinity levels are down close to zero, where they should be.

And why? That's because we're able to keep more water in the system. We're able to, you know, help it get all the way down to the bay.

That's been the problem all along, right? We've diverted water away from the Everglades all the way from the top to the bottom. And so by the time you get to the bottom, the bottom is usually the worst off because there's the least amount of water.

What we're seeing is water actually getting to the bottom of the system. To me, that is probably the clearest indicator that restoration is already working. And we've still got so much more to build.

GREEN: One of the most controversial projects has been a massive new reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee. And this project has been championed by the DeSantis administration, but others think the reservoir might not work as envisioned. What do you think? What are your thoughts on that?

ESTENOZ: Yeah, you know, I don't think of the reservoir as controversial. ... Having storage south of Lake Okeechobee has been part of the restoration plan since the very beginning. The notion that storage south of Lake Okeechobee in that agricultural area is somehow controversial, it really isn't. It's been part of the plan all along.

GREEN: The Everglades are a treasured natural resource in Florida. The watershed is responsible for the drinking water of more than 8 million Floridians. What else do the Everglades need at this point?

ESTENOZ: The Everglades needs now concentrated investment and concentrated action, frankly. On the ground it needs bulldozers. It needs construction. And the good news is it's getting what it needs, and it's getting what it needs because we are now investing at the level that it needs.

Amy Green covered the environment for WMFE until 2023. Her work included the 2020 podcast DRAINED.