- Associated Press - Friday, January 9, 2015

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK, Fla. (AP) - U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and the new superintendent of Everglades National Park island-hopped in Florida Bay on Friday, gauging wetlands restoration efforts against the effects of climate change.

Through a multibillion-dollar series of projects, the state and federal governments are attempting to restore a more natural flow of water through the unique wetlands into the bay that’s vital to the fisheries in the Florida Keys. Rising sea levels and the intrusion of saltwater into freshwater environments has added urgency to restoration already beset by funding and legal challenges.

“There’s such important work going on here that really has the potential to influence the world in terms of recovery of ecosystems and undoing what man did,” Jewell said.

“There are many parts of the country that would love to have the resources that are being brought here,” she said. “It’s a model.”

Jewell, federal scientists and Pedro Ramos, the park’s new superintendent, toured several small islands in park waters between the Florida Keys and the swamps on the mainland.

The mangroves that comprise these islands act as a natural buffer against storm-surge flooding. While their growth has been able to keep up with rising seas and storm flooding so far, researchers question how resilient the islands will be if the rate of sea level rise increases and what will happen if the mangroves are replaced by open water.

“The big question is, what can we do from a restoration standpoint to help increase and foster that inward migration of mangroves to keep up with sea level rise?” said Nicholas Aumen, a regional science adviser for the U.S. Geological Survey.

One hope for Everglades restoration, Aumen said, is to restore a natural flow of freshwater and sediment at the coastline that would allow mangroves to adapt.

Later Friday, Jewell was to be the keynote speaker at the Everglades Coalition Conference, an annual meeting of elected officials and environmental advocates.

Jewell praised the unity of Florida’s congressional delegation, among other state officials, in support of Everglades restoration.

“It doesn’t become a partisan issue at all, so that’s also very, very helpful and not consistent with other projects that also are very important across the country.”

U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio and U.S. Reps. Patrick Murphy and David Jolly introduced legislation Thursday to authorize a $2 billion Central Everglades Planning Project that missed a cutoff for inclusion in a federal water projects bill passed last spring.

The project would increase the amount of water flowing south into the park, reducing harmful streams of water sent to Florida’s coasts.

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Follow Jennifer Kay on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jnkay .

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