fact sheet >
U.S. Department of the Interior
U.S. Geological Survey
USGS Science for Restoration of South Florida: The South Florida Ecosystem
As land and resource managers see the value of their resources diminish, and
the public watches the environments they knew as children become degraded,
there are increasing calls to restore what has been lost, or to build
productive ecosystems that will be healthy and sustainable
under the conditions of human use. The U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS)
Placed-Based Studies Program was established to provide sound science for
resource managers in critical ecosystems such as South Florida
The program, which began in south Florida in 1995, provides relevant
information, high-quality data, and models to support decisions for
ecosystem restoration and management. The program applies multi- and
interdisciplinary science to address regional and subregional environmental
Figure 1. Satellite image of south Florida
showing boundary of the South Florida Ecosystem Program. (click on image
for full-sized version.)
Environmental Restoration: A Partnership
A consensus has emerged among Federal and State agencies
and environmental groups that south Florida and the Everglades
ecosystem should be restored as much as possible to its original condition.
Following the settlement of a lawsuit on Everglades water quality, a Federal
task force, chaired by the Department of the Interior (DOI), was formed
in 1993 to oversee restoration efforts
(fig. 2). The task force was enlarged
in 1995 to include 25 representatives of Federal and State agencies and
Indian tribes. A Science Coordination Team (SCT), consisting of representatives
of these agencies and tribes, advises the task force
(fig. 2) on scientific
investigations needed to support restoration. These investigations
include characterizing and comparing the predrainage system with the present
system, determining key characteristics of the predevelopment ecosystem,
providing natural science input to and assessment of the redesign of structures
and operations of the Central and Southern Florida Project Comprehensive
Review Study (the Restudy), assessing the hydrologic and ecological results
of the Restudy modifications through pre- and postmodification monitoring
and modeling, modifying the design of the modifications to make improvements
based on monitoring and modeling results, and characterizing the potential
effect of the project on mercury accumulation. Many of the scientific activities
are carried out by the USGS, which is the principal science agency of the
DOI. The USGS works and collaborates with researchers in academia, State
Government, and elsewhere in the Federal Government to bring the right
mix of expertise needed for the scientific task.
Figure 2. Diagram
of science development for the
restoration of south Florida. (click on image for full-sized version.)
South Florida Ecosystem Program
The South Florida Ecosystem Program is one of the Nation's
Placed-Based Studies. The program began with a diverse body of projects
encompassing cartographic, geologic, and hydrologic disciplines, and was
guided from the start by scientific demands of ecosystem restoration. Projects
have been selected based on the ranking of proposals by agencies involved
in restoration, or based on the results of scientific review processes
which high-lighted additional scientific needs. Recently, the SCT has assumed
the major responsibility for coordinating and selecting scientific studies
needed for restoration.
An important part of the program is the facilitation of
scientific linkages between disciplines. The multi- and interdisciplinary
approach brings together scientists from appropriate operational units to
apply their diverse expertise to common problems. Information from one
discipline is designed to be used by scientific colleagues in other disciplines.
When the National Biological Survey joined the USGS and became the Biological
Resources Division in 1997, the USGS was able to provide a more integrated
and comprehensive scientific service for land and resource managers.
Many studies in the program are nearing completion. As studies are completed, emphasis is shifting to completing research reports,
archiving data from the ongoing projects, and preparing topical synthesis
documents. Synthesis documents will summarize and integrate USGS accomplishments
and understanding to date, as well as describe the relevance of the program's
research to management issues. Synthesis will also identify unanswered
questions and make recommendations for continuing research directions.
Figure 3. Diagram
of science for adaptive management and restoration in south Florida. (Click on
image for full-sized version.)
The program in south Florida has several broad work elements
that contribute to science for adaptive management and restoration
(fig. 3). The elements include:
- Historical Studies of the Ecosystem - The objective
of historical studies is to better define recent (last few hundred years)
climatic and environmental conditions in south Florida. Techniques
include review of historical records and analysis of sediment cores by
using charcoal, pollen, spores, and invertebrate skeletons as indicators
of past environments.
- Areal/Site Studies - Multidisciplinary studies,
which are confined to specific areas or sites such as Florida Bay, Biscayne
Bay, and the southern inland coastal systems in southern and eastern Dade
County, provide biologic, cartographic, geologic, and hydrologic information
that focuses on the needs associated with restoration activities.
- Geochemical Process Research - Research on the
biological and chemical processes that affect and control the cycling of
nutrients, sulfur, mercury, and other contaminants improves understanding
of the south Florida ecosystem and its response to restoration activities.
- Model Development - Robust models of ecological
processes and the hydrologic system provide predictive capabilities for
managers of the ecosystem and improve understanding of probable ecosystem
responses to restoration activities. Development and applications of models
of sheetflow, ground-water movement, evapotranspiration in different vegetative
communities, and ecological interactions are all underway.
- Data Synthesis and Information Dissemination - Topical
syntheses will analyze, summarize, and integrate USGS research
and understanding, and describe the relevance of this research to management
issues. Synthesis is also planned at the interagency
level, incorporating multidisciplinary information collected by all agencies
involved in south Florida restoration. The USGS World Wide Web site for South Florida http://sofia.usgs.gov,
(fig. 5) allows easy access
to program information by the public, interested scientists,
and resource managers. The web site includes access to scientific data
and metadata, information on current projects and investigators, and reports.
Predevelopment in South Florida
At the time of settlement by Europeans (mid-1800's),
south Florida was a lush, subtropical wilderness. The Everglades was part
of a larger watershed: the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades
that extended for more than half the length of the Florida Peninsula and
encompassed one of the largest wetlands in the continental United States.
These wetlands and the entire watershed (fig. 4)
provided the freshwater
that sustained the high productivity and abundant fisheries of coastal
waters. The wetlands of south Florida were regarded
as being inhospitable and without intrinsic value. In the early 1900's, draining the wetlands was considered to be essential for
commerce and safety. Loss of lives as a result of hurricane flooding
in the 1930's accelerated drainage projects, primarily in the Everglades.
Drainage has resulted in the construction of more
than 1,400 miles of primary canals and more than 100 water-control structures.
South Florida Today
South Florida includes urban areas near the coast, intensively
developed agricultural areas in the northern Everglades, rangelands, and
wetlands. The southern part of the ecosystem is mostly under public ownership
or control as parks, preserves, sanctuaries, conservation areas, and refuges
(see fig. 4).
Three major interests compete for water: urban, agriculture,
and the natural ecosystem. The rapidly growing urban population along the
coast requires a steady water supply and flood protection. Agricultural
lands around Lake Okeechobee and near the southeastern Everglades need
flood protection and seasonal water availability, and are a source of nutrients
to areas downstream. The natural ecosystem requires water low in nutrients,
seasonal wet and dry periods, and occasional periods of flooding and drought.
Accommodating all three interests is a challenge for water managers.
Figure 4. Changes in
land cover and drainage in south Florida - predevelopment
and today. (click on image for full-sized version.)
Drainage and development have contributed to a number
of environmental problems. These include loss of soil, nutrient enrichment,
contamination by pesticides, mercury buildup in the biota, fragmentation
of landscape, loss of wetlands and wetland functions, widespread invasion
by exotic species, increasingly frequent algal blooms in coastal waters,
seagrass die-off, and declines in fishing resources. Changes in the hydrologic
system are thought by many to be the root cause of the dramatic declines
in fish and wildlife populations and habitat alteration across the south
Program Results that Contribute to Management
Results from the program are already contributing to
restoration management. Some examples include:
- Providing agencies with essential cartographic
and hydrologic data needed to model timing and pattern of flows, and helping
to evaluate these models, such as the South Florida Water Management District's
Natural Systems Model used in planning restoration.
- Developing models that are essential for restoration,
such as the Across-Trophic Level System Simulation (ATLAS) model that was
recently used by managers to adjust water flows to protect habitat for
the Cape Sable seaside sparrow.
- Providing information on historical conditions that
place current conditions in perspective. For example, USGS research has
shown that the marshes of the central Everglades have been drier this last
century than in the last 2,000 years, that salinities in Florida Bay and
Biscayne Bay have been increasing over the last 100 years, and that fresh
and brackish-water biota have been replaced by seagrasses in some nearshore
bay locations. Restoration will require rediversion of freshwater to historical
pathways to reverse recent trends.
- Identifying a potential pathway for nutrients from waste-water
disposal wells on the Florida Keys to enter marine waters by eastward
ground-water flow under the Keys and by upward seepage into surface waters.
- Confirming that some of the phosphorus inputs to the
Everglades originate from fertilizers and contribute to over-enrichment,
degraded water quality, and biological alterations.
- Showing that sulfur inputs to the Everglades play a
major role in mercury methylation, can alter microbial cycles, and produce
toxic hydrogen sulfide.
Figure 5. Organization
of the South Florida Ecosystem Program web site, database, and fact sheets.
(Click on image for full-sized version.)
The USGS South Florida Ecosystem Program will emphasize data and synthesis
in coming years. Results from the program will provide technical information
needed to measure and assess restoration success and sustainability in south
Click here for a printable version of this fact sheet (note: document will
open in a new browser window)
Click here to download the entire PDF document (310
KB). You will need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the file.
For more information contact:
U.S. Geological Survey
3301 Gun Club Road
West Palm Beach, FL 33416
South Florida Restoration Science Forum website