Society values landscapes that are engrained in cultural tradition and have a rich connection with human history. As such, there has been a concerted effort to look at the pristine past and develop plans to move the past into the future. However, bringing the past back is constrained by hysteretic changes, irrevocable damages, and anthropogenic trends that do not reflect past conditions. The scale of the Everglades and its importance to water supply and flood control is such that a full recovery, to past, pre-drainage conditions, is not possible. What is possible? The answer is the federally authorized Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) and the first, most significant implementation of the $12 Billion CERP is the $2 Billion Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP). CEPP is our “flux-capacitor” in the DeLorean sports car that generates the ability to go back and forth in time, in the movie series “Back to the Future.”
The primary hydrological modeling outputs of CEPP came from a version of the Regional Simulation Model (RSM), developed by the South Florida Water Management District. The RSM is the DeLorean vehicle, designed to carry the bags of ecological restoration. Unfortunately, the capacity of this vehicle (i.e., CEPP) is limited, but is it large enough? Will CEPP make a difference? The 20-year RSM simulations (1965 – 1985) without restoration showed nine dry periods when there was no water in the sloughs of Everglades National Park (ENP). When the model was run with CEPP conditions, all of these extreme dry conditions were eliminated. The impact of this was most apparent for fish, especially the size classes that wading birds eat. With our DeLorean (i.e. the RSM) we saw a 60-90% increase in fish density. As one might expect, the birds in our alternative future responded to the fish. The increased volume, flow, and connectivity in the CEPP simulations significantly improved the foraging response of all wading bird species, especially in Water Conservation Area 3 (WCA-3) and ENP. Foraging conditions for an average CEPP year improved by 25-100%. Further downstream, the CEPP simulations showed increased delivery of low nutrient fresh water to the Coastal Everglades and Florida Bay that displaced the relatively P-rich marine water, increased water transparency, and thus decreased algal blooms. However, in a future with accelerating sea levels and estuarine lakes with legacy phosphorus (P), how much more fresh water will be needed to maintain submerged aquatic vegetated habitats? The quest for Everglades Restoration will reach a resource management milestone with the implementation of CEPP. CEPP successfully used a broad suite of hydrological, ecological and societal models to build an acceptable and feasible adaptive management vision of the future. It has been a long and difficult journey, but what we have learned in the process will guide future travelers back in time.