A massive construction project in the southern U.S. state of Florida will try to breathe life back into the state's wetlands called the Everglades. Large parts of Florida's ecosystem have dried up following decades of flood control measures. As Steve Mort reports, the project includes the world's largest above ground, man-made reservoir and the famous Everglades National Park.
The best way to get around this part of Florida is by boat. The Kissimmee River flood basin is part of a 47,000 square kilometer ecosystem that includes the Everglades, the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States.
Chuck Wilburn leads the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' effort to restore the basin. He says channels built during the 1960s and early '70s to prevent flooding caused serious damage to the ecology of the Everglades and southern Florida's wetlands.
"What that has done is, it has changed the flood basin. It has taken the flood basin and actually dried it up," Wilburn said.
The channels drained two-thirds of the flood basin. So in 1992, the U.S. Congress approved work, like this dam, to restore more than a hundred square kilometers of flood basin.
"The Kissimmee River basin is supposed to be fully restored by 2012 so there's a lot to do in the next four years," Wilburn explained.
That includes restoring almost 70 kilometers of meandering river.
Further south in Florida's vast sugar cane fields, restoration efforts have been given a boost with a tentative $1.75 billion agreement between America's largest sugar cane producer and the state of Florida.
Under the deal, which is still being negotiated, U.S. Sugar would halt operations in about six years time and sell nearly 780 square kilometers of sugar cane fields to make way for a network of reservoirs and marshes to channel water back into the Everglades.
Even before the recent U.S. Sugar announcement, an enormous reservoir was already being built.
Official’s say it's too early to tell how a deal with U.S. Sugar might impact plans for the reservoir. It would be used to restore almost a million hectares of Everglades' ecosystem by collecting almost six billion liters of water per day, currently channeled out to sea.
Grey May heads the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. It coordinates the work of agencies working in restoration.
"We have got to make sure we've got a place to store the water, that we can clean the water, and that we can ensure that the flood protection that is necessary to protect the seven million people that surround the remaining Everglades is all in place," May said.
The reservoir is part of an $8 billion comprehensive restoration plan for the Everglades.
But an environmental group has filed a lawsuit, and work on the reservoir has been temporarily halted.
Brad Sewell is an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The council wants assurances that the reservoir will be used mostly to restore the Everglades, not for development.
"While the title is Everglades restoration, there is a very strong set of interests in Florida that want many of these projects to also be used for water supply,” Sewell said. “They're expecting a 30 percent increase in water demand over the next 20 years."
Many experts say recent growth in this part of the United States means it will be impossible to fully restore the Everglades to their former glory. But the program aims to try.