Everglades restoration imperiled by monitoring program cuts, experts say

The agencies in charge of restoring the Everglades are set to gut a science program critical to determining whether work they’re doing is helping or hurting plants and animals that live there — from algae that anchors the bottom of the food chain to alligators that feast at its top.

The budget for the long-running monitoring program, which assesses key “indicator” species that serve as the vital signs of complex, interconnected Everglades ecosystems, is being slashed by almost 60 percent overall, with nearly a dozen research projects eliminated completely.

The cuts, all but finalized, drew sharp criticism from some members of an interagency Everglades restoration group that reviewed them last week. They warned that the resulting data gap could compromise the ambitious multibillion-dollar restoration effort.

“It’s devastating. It’s completely killing the science, the foundation on which everything was built,’’ said Ronnie Best, coordinator of the greater Everglades science program for the U.S. Geological Survey. “We can’t move forward in the future with any confidence that what we’re doing is making a difference because we won’t be out there monitoring.’’

The cuts come from the two partners splitting the cost of the ambitious $14 billion Everglades restoration effort, the South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The district’s governing board, under orders from Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers to reduce yearly spending by 30 percent, last week approved an “austere’’ $600 million budget that lopped off some $130 million through layoffs and benefits reductions as well as delays of maintenance work and Everglades projects.

The science monitoring program took an outsized hit, with the district cutting its share of funding some 71 percent, from $2.3 million to $645,000. The Corps, also one of the program’s primary supporters, is proposing a cut of about 40 percent, from $5.8 million to about $3.5 million. Susan Gray, the district’s chief environmental scientist, said the district had worked with the Corps as well as other agencies and academic researchers handling monitoring to prioritize projects “in light of the very tough financial situation.’’

The district is legally obligated to continue certain monitoring, she said but the cuts were fashioned to preserve critical measures across the Everglades, which stretch from the Kissimmee River to Florida Bay.

She also said the program, specifically designed under the 2000 Everglades restoration plan to track and analyze large-scale changes in the system, can be supplemented with data from individual restoration projects or by other agencies. It was also decided that some monitoring could be left on standby and potentially resumed down the road as projects are built.

Still, she acknowledged the cuts were significant, especially to monitoring programs that have been “optimized,’’ meaning trimmed, several times in the last few years. The result is that the expected budget for 2012 of about $3.9 million is down by more than half from this year and more than two-thirds from 2008.

“There was not any fluff,’’ Gray said. “We’re losing some of the cause-and-effect science that is so critical to understanding how the system operates.’’

Among the monitoring that will be halted: submerged vegetation in Biscayne Bay, the Indian River Lagoon and Loxahatchee watershed; water quality, circulation and salinity in southern coastal areas; assessments of crocodiles and alligators, fishes in marshes and mangroves, and juvenile pink shrimp. Monitoring damaging algae blooms in Florida Bay — the blooms have been a persistent problem — also will be ended. Money for more than a dozen other projects will be cut from 10 to 83 percent.

Scientists like Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida wildlife ecology professor based in Davie, said the most frustrating thing is that $4 million savings amounts to a drop in the bucket of an Everglades restoration plan with an estimated official price tag of $14 billion.

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s not like they are saving a lot of money by doing this,’’ said Mazzotti, who for decades has monitored South Florida’s populations of crocodiles and alligators, creatures whose movements, productivity, growth rates and numbers have proven to be good gauges of changes in water levels and quality.

The program cut all $300,000 for his surveys, meaning a half-dozen technician and grad students will be out of work. He’ll continue more limited work himself with funding from other agencies. In the Everglades, where life waxes and wanes with seasonal rainfall and changes in water levels, he believes there is a risk of missing potentially serious changes if monitoring is dropped for a year or more.

He likened it to skipping annual dentist visits: “If you only go every five years, instead of a little cavity, you might need a root canal.’’

Joel Trexler, a professor of biology at Florida International University, echoed Mazzotti. A program he runs with FIU colleague Evelyn Gaiser was lopped by more $200,000 to $315,000. Gaiser monitors periphyton, ubiquitous algae that are the base of the Everglades food chain, while Trexler focuses on crayfish and small fish, which eat algae and in turn are eaten by wading birds.

They’ve already had to trim a six-person technical staff in half. Worse, the cut, combined with a decision by the district to no longer allow researchers to charter its helicopters, will put some spots in the Everglades effectively out of reach, he said.

Trexler fears the cuts will undermine what was supposed to be one of the hallmarks of Everglades restoration, a concept called “adaptive management’’ — meaning that changes observed on the ground are supposed to guide decisions on projects designs and operation.

The idea was to avoid mistakes of the past, with engineering projects in one spot producing unintended and unfortunate ripple effects elsewhere. Cutting the C-111 canal to drain farms in South Miami-Dade, for instance, shunted water flow away from Florida Bay, resulting in higher salinity, periodic seagrass die-offs and algae blooms.

“Often in a system like the Everglades,’’ Trexler said, “the impacts and the consequences are far distance and there are often surprises.’’

Mazzotti, Best and other scientists acknowledged it’s hard to make the case for robust monitoring with the public and policymakers, particularly when results can sometimes show little, if any, changes. But not doing it can carry high costs as well, Mazzotti said.

“The reason we are restoring the Everglades is that when we tried to manage it in previous years, there was no monitoring,’’ he said.

Best and other scientists also warned that there was a risk of losing future federal funding. When Congress approved the landmark state-federal restoration plan in 2000, it also demanded scientific proof that the billions of dollars in projects were working. To a large extent, the health of indicator species like wading birds, crayfish and alligators are supposed to serve as that proof.

The district’s Gray said enough monitoring remained to support the restoration work. “There were touch choices that needed to be made,’’ she said.

Craig Tepper, water resources director of the Seminole Tribe, listened to the scientists’ concerns during Wednesday’s meeting of the science coordination group of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force but said he had a different take on the cuts.

He told scientists that he supports the district’s decision to put a priority on building projects, rather than more monitoring.

“You’ve been studying the system for quite a few years now,’’ he said. “It’s more important for the public to see projects.’’

To read more, visit