FIU’s leadership in the race to save the Florida Everglades received national attention earlier this month.
University scientists headed to the nation’s capital to discuss their critical work in front of government officials, policy advisors, tribal leaders and representatives from organizations such as the National Park Service, the Coastal Conservation Association and the Florida EPA. The high-level gathering was hosted by FIU and the Everglades Foundation at the university's center in Washington, D.C., which serves as a hub for education as well as a place for convening leading voices on the most important issues of the day.
FIU has for more than two decades headed a $40 million water-quality monitoring project - the Florida Coastal Everglades Long Term Ecological Research Program funding by the National Scicen Foundation - that is guiding restoration of the famed River of Grass: 1.5 million acres of threatened wetlands that provide nearly all of South Florida’s freshwater, serve as a buffer against rising seas and offer a source of livelihood to thousands and recreation to millions. FIU’s work, in collaboartion with a network of other universities and government agencies, is vital to understanding how the freshwater marsh has changed over the years due to human activity.
Once extending from Lake Okeechobee in the middle of Florida down to the tip of the peninsula, the original wetlands have been reduced by half as an ever-growing population has bent the once-mighty watershed to its will. Water-drainage projects for commerical agricultural and residential development have interrupted the natural flow of the Everglades since at least 1900, and much of what is essentially a slow-moving river is today managed by a system of levees and canals.
“We are working to understand the dynamics between the social and environmental systems to help support the resilience of the Everglades,” said Tiffany Troxler, associate director of science for sea level solutions within FIU’s Institute of Environment. Troxler explained, that “some of the work we do is focused on ‘ecosystem-level processes’ that help us to understand the vulnerability and the fate of our freshwater and coastal wetlands.” Among these processes are “energy flows,” which rely on thriving, diverse plant life, and “nutrient cycling,” which requires rich microscopic life in the soil to make nutrients accessible to plants and, ultimately, the animals that eat them.
FIU’s early work in the Everglades led to the discovery that phosphorus, a common ingredient in commercial fertilizer, was disrupting native-plant and wildlife habitats. Researchers made the recommendation that phosphorous levels be limited to 10 parts per billion. Anything above that, they said, and the Everglades likely would not survive long term. When the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was authorized by Congress, it included the FIU recommended-threshold, which is still in place today, 23 years later.
Understanding the dynamics that Troxler identified makes possible what is called “adaptive resilience,” or an ability to deal with adverse circumstances and find ways forward, say those involved in preservation and revitalization of the Everglades.
Participating on a panel with Troxler and others, lead scientist Gina Ralph of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reiterated that the data FIU has collected is foundational to the work of the organization. The corps is the lead federal agency for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which has three goals: to restore the quality, quantity and distribution of water; restore and protect natural habits and species; and foster compatibility of the built and natural systems.
Other panelists addressed the importance of trying to balance social, economic and environmental outcomes when determining how best to manage our largest natural resource.
“Social and economic resilience is derived from our environment,” said Meenakshi Chabba, a scientist with the Everglades Foundation. “Therefore, environmental resilience becomes a pre-condition to community resilience.” For example, the need for more housing in South Florida is very real, but the resulting stress of new construction on the local water supply and drainage systems could ultimately lead to large-scale, community-wide failure if all possibilities and all stakeholders are not considered. Conundrums such as these hint at the hard but necessary decisions ahead.
Along with the dozens of national and statewide stakeholders in attendance at the D.C. meeting were a cohort of of FIU students with various majors but a common interest: advocating on behalf of the diverse community of Miami-Dade County and communicating science. Hearing firsthand from researchers in the trenches and those involved in setting environmental policy deepened their knowledge as they prepare for careers.
“FIU has a very unique place in Everglades restoration and the process because [researchers] provide a lot of the science,” said Chloe Vorseth an FIU doctoral candidate studying earth system sciences with a focus on environmental economics. “Not only is this event a great common ground for us to have more informal and networking conversations surrounding Everglades restoration,” she added, “but also an invaluable experience for me. I feel like I got to meet people who are doing my dream job, which is always inspiring.”
Students with non-science backgrounds likewise expressed enthusiasm.
“I learned how I can build upon that intersection between governmental policy and environmental protection,” said junior Nailah Augustin. “The event has been fascinating. I learned how I can use my degree in political science to cross over into being more involved with advocating for the environment through research or writing. This event has brought everything full circle for me as someone who can still be involved despite not having a STEM major.”
FIU in Washington, D.C., showcases the impact of FIU research; provides students with engaged academic experiences and internships; and convenes national partners for meaningful conversations across a broad range of issues as it brings the energy of Miami to the nation’s capital.