Last updated: May 8, 1998

South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Taskforce. Science Subgroup. 1996.

South Florida Ecosystem Restoration: Scientific Information Needs:

Report to the Working Group of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force


This report on information needs is the first step in development of an ecosystem-based South Florida Comprehensive Science Plan required for the ecosystem approach mandated by the Interagency Task Force in its September 23, 1993, Agreement on South Florida Ecosystem Restoration. The modeling, monitoring, and special studies recommended in this document will provide the information basis for ecosystem management.

South Florida is a heterogeneous system of wetlands, uplands, and coastal and marine areas comprising at least 11 major physiographic provinces. It is dominated by the watersheds of the Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee, and the Everglades. Prior to drainage, wetlands covered most of central and southern Florida. Productivity of the predrainage wetlands was dependent on dynamic hydrologic storage and sheetflow, large spatial scale, and heterogeneity in habitat. The biological abundance and diversity the habitats once supported were maintained by the complex annual and long-term hydrologic patterns of the natural system, over which were superimposed sporadic events such as storms, fires, and freezes.

Human alterations in the hydrologic system beginning in the late 1800s have created water quality and water quantity problems for South Florida's natural systems, including the Everglades and the estuaries. Hydroperiods and hydropatterns, which relate to the duration, timing, and extent that wetlands are wet, have been greatly distorted. The quantity, timing, location, and quality of freshwater flow to estuaries have been greatly modified. The pace of deterioration seems to be increasing. Known wildlife populations are now a fraction of their size of even 30 years ago. Florida Bay is experiencing obvious catastrophic change manifested in massive seagrass dieoffs and noxious algal blooms. Even the reef tract is not immune to probable land-based detrimental influences.

South Florida's human population currently exceeds 5 million and is expanding rapidly. This expanding human presence has dramatically changed the South Florida Ecosystem. In addition to hydrologic alterations for flood control, the changes include an increasing water demand by agricultural and urban uses, while, at the same time, the water supply has actually been decreased by the conversion of land to agricultural and urban uses and by the shunting to the coast of fresh water that previously was stored in the wetlands, the soils, and the aquifers. Other changes are water quality and treatment problems, soil subsidence in the Everglades Agricultural Area, nutrient enrichment, pollution by contaminants, introduction of invasive non-native plants and animals, fragmentation of habitats and landscapes, loss of wetland areas and functions, altered fire regimes, and declines in reef and estuarine resources.

The problems of nonindigenous species, mercury contamination, pollution by pesticides and other contaminants, and preservation of endangered species are so serious and pervasive throughout South Florida that individual chapters are devoted to these cross-cutting problems on a region-wide basis, in addition to discussions in most of the subregion chapters. Holistic solutions to these problems will provide for more sustainable economic opportunities while at the same time improve the sustainability of the natural portions of the South Florida Ecosystem.

The overall goal of the restoration effort is to restore a sustainable ecosystem that preserves the valued properties of South Florida's natural systems and supports productive agriculture-, fishery-, and tourist-based economies and a high quality of urban life. The basic premise is that better water management will provide sustainability across both human and natural systems. Therefore, the working hypothesis is that hydrologic restoration is the prerequisite to ecosystem restoration. The highest priority science is that which determines how to modify the structure and operation of the hydrologic system to accomplish restoration.

The overall objective of the Science Subgroup is to develop an interagency, interdisciplinary science program that will guide restoration actions by determining relationships between ecosystem function and hydrologic regime and describing hydrologic conditions required to support the characteristic landscapes, biodiversity, and wildlife abundance of predrainage South Florida. The information needs presented in this document are directed at obtaining the data required to provide a scientific basis for management decisions and the information that could lead to increased beneficial interactions between natural and human communities.

The scientific investigations identified in this report are directed at characterizing the predrainage system, particularly its hydrology, and comparing it to the present system; determining the key characteristics of the former natural hydrologic system that supported the rich diversity and abundance of wildlife that have been lost; designing structural and operational modifications of the C&SF Project that would recreate the key characteristics of the natural hydrologic system; assessing the hydrologic and ecological results of these modifications; and modifying the design to make improvements. Particularly appropriate is the adaptive management approach, in which the measured outcome of management actions is used to make corrections and adjustments in those actions in order to improve the probability of achieving objectives. Adaptive management has three elements -- models, restoration support studies, and monitoring -- that must be used as coordinated, supportive tools. The operational foundation of the adaptive management approach is periodic environmental assessment, which utilizes models to predict outcomes, monitoring to test the predictions, and field and laboratory studies to provide critical supporting information.

The scientific information needs in relation to the restoration goal and the restoration and science objectives for the South Florida Region, each of the 10 geographic subregions, and each region-wide topic are summarized in the following figures. The many information needs reflect the diversity of habitats and biotic communities within South Florida -- and also the diversity of ecological problems.

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