News | February 07, 2017

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Wetlands expert assesses Everglades restoration

FGCU’s renowned wetlands expert will discuss Florida Everglades restoration efforts in a lecture at 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10 in Naples.

William J. Mitsch, Ph.D., 2004 Stockholm Water Prize laureate and Juliet C. Sproul Chair for Southwest Florida Habitat Restoration and Management at FGCU, is director of the university’s Everglades Wetland Research Park. His lecture, “Restoring the Greater Florida Everglades — what has gone right and what has gone wrong,” is part of a Wetlands Day celebration at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, 375 Sanctuary Road W., Naples.

William J. Mitsch
William J. Mitsch

The U.S. Congress formally authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) in 2000 as a multi-decadal, multi-billion-dollar project focused on restoring, preserving and protecting the south Florida ecosystem while providing for other water-related needs of the region. One of the primary goals has always been to “send the water south” in an attempt to restore the original hydrology of the region by diverting less water from the upper watershed east and west to the sea and allowing it to flow south to and through the Everglades. But frequently, this has been impossible, according to Mitsch.

Last year, for example, the U.S Army Corps of Engineers released more than 800 billion gallons of Lake Okeechobee’s polluted water west to the Gulf of Mexico and east to the Atlantic Ocean because of the lake’s high water levels. These pulses — like similar releases in 2013 — led to significant coastal pollution in the gulf and ocean estuaries and public outcry for solutions.

To enhance water quality and avoid downstream effects of excessive nutrients, the state of Florida has created or restored 60,000 acres of treatment wetlands — referred to as stormwater treatment areas — south of the agricultural area below Lake Okeechobee to remove phosphorus from the water that drains from the lake and especially from the sugarcane fields and farmlands south of the lake.

“These created or restored wetlands have been effective in significantly reducing phosphorus concentrations before the water is discharged to the Everglades,” Mitsch says. “For example, in calendar year 2015 total phosphorus decreased from 99 to 17 parts per billion through these wetlands.  Our studies have indicated that concentrations as low as 10 ppb are possible with this type of wetlands. We estimate that more than 100,000 acres of additional treatment wetlands for storage and ultimate clean-up of stormwater are needed to avoid future estuarine pollution disasters such as those that occurred in 2013 and 2016.”

Mitsch’s research and teaching have focused on wetland ecology and biogeochemistry, wetland creation and restoration and ecological engineering. His many publications include five editions of the textbook “Wetlands.” He currently holds courtesy or emeritus faculty appointments at The Ohio State University, University of Florida, University of Notre Dame and University of South Florida.

The Everglades Wetland Research Park is dedicated to research on the wise management of freshwater and coastal ecosystems of Southwest Florida and the Florida Everglades and to the protection and enhancement of wetlands and water resources worldwide. More details are available on the park’s website.