World Rivers Day 2021
Studying the River of Grass
World Rivers Day, the last September Sunday, is a global celebration of the world's waterways, including Florida’s freshwater ecosystem — the Everglades.
While this intricate system of subtropical wetlands, lakes and rivers is often thought of as a swamp, it’s actually a slow-moving, shallow river that creeps along from Lake Okeechobee to the southern tip of Florida. It’s dominated by sawgrass, a plant with sharp teeth along the edges of each blade. Native Americans living in the area called it Pahayokee, meaning the "grassy waters."
The Everglades is home to hundreds of species of birds, plants and fish. It also provides drinking water for more than 8 million people. Yet, due to threats including agricultural development, urban sprawl and the invasion of invasive species, it’s about half the size it was a century ago.
To help restore, protect and preserve the South Florida ecosystem, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) was authorized by Congress in 2000. The unique interagency and federal/state partnership also addresses water-related needs of the region, including water supply and flood protection.
FAU researchers study this ecosystem and its threats, from the nesting and feeding behavior of the wading birds, to the invasive plants and animals, the endangered species and the physics of the wetlands. Much of the funding for this work comes from the CERP. Additionally, FAU’s Center for Environmental Studies (CES) has managed the Riverwoods Field Lab, located in the Kissimmee River Basin, as a research and education center for more than 20 years. The Kissimmee River and lakes are the headwaters for the greater Everglades watershed.
“The success of the greater Everglades restoration project is dependent on the successful completion of the Kissimmee River restoration, because it is the source of the freshwater flowing south,” said Loisa Kerwin, assistant director, CES, and director, Riverwoods Field Lab: “One very exciting result of the restoration is that the endangered Everglades snail kite (bird) has returned to the restored wetlands of the Kissimmee River.”
In honor of World Rivers Day, here’s what FAU researchers in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Sciences want you to know about the Everglades and related waters in South Florida.
John D. Baldwin, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences and interim director of FAU’s Environmental Science Program:“I'd like everyone to know that the Everglades is not a scary place. But it's a wonderful place to explore. I don't think everyone realizes within half an hour you can go from being in one of the most densely populated regions, to being the only person for miles. The openness, the history of it, is just something that everyone should experience. Those experiences of being in true, wild nature, away from people, I think would give everyone a better appreciation for what it is.”
Xavier Comas, Ph.D., professor of geosciences:“The Everglades is currently half the size it used to be 100 years ago. Being one of the most diverse wetlands in the world it is a precious environment that cannot be replaced once lost. For all these reasons we need to keep expanding on our knowledge of potential processes that may be accelerating its destruction, such as peat collapse or phosphorus contamination so we have a better science-based understanding on how to protect it."
Michelle Petersen, Ph.D., assistant research professor of biological sciences:“In addition to being the only ‘Everglades’ on Earth, the unique hydrology of this ecosystem supports the majority of tropical wading birds breeding in South Florida. Also, people might be surprised to learn that mosquitos, despite their nuisance factor, play a key role in the Everglades ecosystem. Some fish that breeding wading birds prey upon, consume large quantities of mosquito larvae before the fish are large enough to be targeted by wading birds.”
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Did you know?
The Everglades is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles coexist and can even be seen basking next to each other.