04/21/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fixing the Everglades: Looking for Wisdom in An Artificial Swamp

The Everglades - The sawgrass and cattails, green with brown accents, bent in the late afternoon wind. Sunlight glinted off the tight ripples scudding across the ponds and little bays. A turkey buzzard shot sideways on an easterly gust.

From my spot on a narrow dirt dike, marshy fields stretched to the horizon. Off to the left, four rectangular ponds broke up the flat, watery landscape. Each rectangle - about the length of four football fields - was a miniature of the Everglades - trees, sawgrass, patches of water, small islands and ridges, water lilies, fish, tropical birds and a few alligators.

The rectangles were man-made structures, open-air laboratories, designed to help find ways to repair decades of damage imposed on the Everglades by other man-made structures - like canals and flood gates - that were installed to tame the vast swamp and provide more dry land for farmers, ranchers, developers and the towns that have steadily encroached on a wilderness like no other in the world.

Now that the engineer-designed improvements have wiped out most of the tropical birds and other swamp creatures, and concerns are rising about the quality and quantity of South Florida's drinking water and irrigation supply, a broad agreement has been reached to try to return the Everglades to something close to its original condition.

Lots of research has been done in the Everglades. For the first time, researchers are working in scale models that include the essential ingredients of the Everglades. Unlike in a traditional laboratory with Petrie dishes and test tubes, the open-air laboratories are big enough for birds and fish to come in and react to what is going on. They become part of the experiment.

In the mini-Everglades in the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge west of Boynton Beach, on Florida's Atlantic coast between West Palm Beach and Miami, nearly a dozen scientists have planted trees like pond apples and gumbo limbos, sunk tiny wells and tracked the effect of water currents on erosion and soil build up. They are preparing now to drain two of the four replicas of the Everglades to create a drought and see if, as they expect, when the water returns there is an abundance of food for wading birds and an increase in mating to rebuild decimated flocks of herons, egrets, ibises and wood storks.

Some Everglades experts say that conducting experiments in models of the Everglades just across a dike from the real Everglades is about the silliest thing they've ever heard of. "The most valuable research is likely to be research focused on the real system," said Joe Browder, an environmentalist who has spent much of his life advocating for the protection and restoration of the Everglades.

But the scientists working in the mini-Everglades say they can learn things in their controlled testing place with a precision that is impossible in the wild. They say they can create floods and droughts without risk of damaging a national treasure.

The Everglades is mostly shallow water, dotted with thousands of small islands and wide ridges of sawgrass. Its nickname is "The River of Grass." The water meanders south from around Lake Okeechobee in the middle of Florida in a more or less single sheet and ends up in the salt water bays at the tip of the state.

Water depth and the velocity of the water are important. They can affect feeding opportunities for birds and the shape of the islands and ridges.

In the wild, the depth and rate of flow cannot be separated, said Dr. Dale E. Gawlik, the director of environmental sciences at Florida Atlantic University and one of the developers of the open-air laboratories. As a result, he said, it is impossible to know for sure what independent impact either the depth or the speed of the water is having on the Everglades. "The only way to tease those two apart," he said, "is to control one and manipulate the other" which is what scientists do in the open-air laboratories.

The mini-Everglades are known collectively as Lila, short for a moniker that only a government official or scientist could love: the Loxahatchee Impoundment Landscape Assessment Project.

In one water flow experiment, scientists imported bright green synthetic soil that was both magnetic and florescent. "We tracked where the soil particles went and measured the speed of the water," said Eric Cline, a scientist with the South Florida Water Management District and the manager of the open-air laboratories. They tested pools of water stocked with fish to see whether birds were attracted to open water or water with moderate or heavy vegetation. The birds chose the moderate vegetation.

Fred Sklar, the director of the Everglades Division of the South Florida Water Management District in West Palm Beach, is one of the creators of the open-air laboratories. He likes the easy access they provide for researchers. "You can drive to the site," he said. To get to many parts of the Everglades you need an airboat or a helicopter or a contraption called a swamp buggy. Lila's drive-up location does wonders for costs. "To rent an airboat and operator is $20,000 a year," Dr. Sklar said. "For a helicopter it's $600 an hour."

The scientists working in the open-air laboratories have made a few interesting discoveries; so far no big breakthroughs and nothing that has been applied in a practical way to the Everglades. Maybe something significant will come out of the work, maybe not. It is a slow process, the scientists say, and, at the least, they hope to influence thinking on the restoration.

However it turns out, the costs for the whole project are going to be small compared to the more than $20 billion that is expected to be spent on the Everglades over the next few decades. Dr. Sklar said the expense of operating the open-air laboratories, including the cost of individual projects, is running just under $340,000 a year. #