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American Magazine: August 2014

The impact of Everglades

The impact of Everglades restoration on the state’s economy is never far from his mind. In 2010 the foundation commissioned a study by Mather Economics that reported the project would create nearly half a million jobs and generate four dollars for every dollar it invested over a 50-year period. The biggest benefit would be in real estate, the study showed, where property values would jump 35 percent due to increased quality of drinking and recreational water. Cutting down on water purification methods, like desalination facilities, would result in a 28 percent economic gain. Tourism, boating, fishing, and hunting are other industries that would benefit from a clean Everglades, both the report and Eikenberg say. That’s not inconsequential considering that Florida should pass New York as the country’s third most populous state late this year or next, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Thanks to decades of manmade engineering, each day 1.7 billion gallons of water are dumped in the gulf and the ocean. Worse, that water is largely polluted, which harms fish and reefs in the estuaries. Runoff from increasing residential and commercial development and fertilizers from agriculture south of Lake Okeechobee (much of it from sugar farming) creates harmful nutrients in the water, which destroy mats of composite algae called periphyton. “It looks like a bunch of oatmeal on top of the water,” says Eikenberg, pointing to the brown slop. “It’s made up of all kinds of organisms that birds and fish feed off of. The fish are food for the birds, the birds are food for the alligators. Periphyton is gone when you have high nutrients.” Florida spends billions of dollars each year to clean the water in natural wetlands, in large part because its average citizen uses 180 gallons of water per day, according to the foundation. There are a lot of swimming pools to fill in the Sunshine State. “It’s water quantity and water quality,” Eikenberg says of the twin goals of restoration. “Instead of wasting billions of gallons by putting it out to sea, we want to direct more clean water to the central part of the Everglades.” That’s why the foundation has strongly supported projects like raising a stretch of the Tamiami Trail, a road that runs straight through the Everglades and now acts as a dam. By doing so, water will again flow south, instead of being diverted by a canal to the east. The first mile recently was completed—25 years after it was authorized, but not funded. Earlier this year Florida governor Rick Scott committed $90 million in state funds toward completing the next 5.5 miles. He praises the foundation’s advocacy. “The Everglades Foundation and Eric Eikenberg play a large role in protecting Florida’s natural treasures and ensuring the necessary steps are taken to be good stewards of Florida’s environment,” Governor Scott says. “The health of the Everglades is critical to our communities . . . plays a major role in attracting tourists to our state, and is essential to continuing our efforts to create more jobs and opportunities for Florida families. That’s why this year we worked to invest more than $250 million towards Everglades restoration. I look forward to continuing to work with Eric to ensure that Florida’s natural treasures are protected.” Still, setbacks are numerous. In April, the Army Corps of Engineers delayed a key decision on the Central Everglades Planning Project, an important step in the restoration plan that would send Lake Okeechobee water south into the central Everglades. The project, which requires Congressional authorization, is critical because it provides the necessary infrastructure to move water south, thus reducing the harmful discharges of polluted water east and west. The delay left Eikenberg as testy as a hungry gator. “This means Congress will be unable to act on [the plan] for years,” he told the media. “Once again, the Corps is bogged down in its own bureaucracy, stumbling past important deadlines, showing an unwillingness to be creative, and determined to follow a trail of red tape that leads to public frustration.” After a career spent in the political arena (and perhaps a future in it—Eikenberg, who has four children from ages seven to three, “IT’S WATER QUANTITY AND WATER QUALITY. INSTEAD OF WASTING BILLIONS OF GALLONS BY PUTTING IT OUT TO SEA, WE WANT TO DIRECT MORE CLEAN WATER TO THE CENTRAL PART OF THE EVERGLADES.” says he’d like to run for office one day), he’s used to navigating in the political muck. But his patience is not perpetual. “Everglades restoration and protection is a nonpartisan issue,” he says. “This is not a regional issue, it’s not even a state issue. It’s not the Florida Everglades. I avoid that term as much as I can. This is America’s Everglades. It’s a natural treasure in the same breath as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park, Mount Rushmore. “Quite frankly the general public doesn’t even know why this is important. If it was a mountain range, people would be in awe because you’d see it, but it’s a mosquito-ridden, alligator-infested [ecosystem]. But it is the lifeblood of south Florida.” In 2013, Everglades National Park drew just more than one million visitors, ranking it 19th among the 59 national parks. (Great Smoky Mountains was tops with 9.3 million.) Those who do go are treated to a landscape breathtaking in its vastness, made even more remarkable considering that the Everglades is now just half its original four million acres. Over the deafening blare of the airboat’s propeller, Eikenberg points out a soaring snail kite, one of 67 threatened or endangered animals in the Everglades. A large alligator, its eyes and snout poking above the water, glides gracefully through the slough. This is the only place in the world where gators and crocodiles coexist. “That’s what this is all about, making sure we hold as much water as we can in the core part of the system so we avoid impacting the ecology and preserve the water supply for eight million people,” he says. Back at the dock the puffy white clouds are quickly replaced by ominous gray ones. Seconds later the sky opens and rain begins to pour. There’s no escaping the water—it’s everywhere. 34 AMERICAN MAGAZINE AUGUST 2014

Forget flowers. More than 3,500 students gave their moms the best Mother’s Day gift of all, collecting their diplomas and joining the ranks of AU alumni. Traditionally held on the second weekend in May, the 128th commencement events kicked off on Saturday, May 10, in Bender Arena and continued on Sunday, May 18, with the Washington College of Law ceremony. PHOTO BY HILARY SCHWAB AMERICAN.EDU/ALUMNI 35