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In South Florida, where the Everglades meet the bays, environmental challenges abound. Sea level rise threatens homes and real estate. Invasive species imperil native plants and animals. Pesticides reduce the risk of mosquito-borne diseases, but at what cost? WLRN's award-winning environment reporting strives to capture the color and complexity of human interaction with one of the most biodiverse areas of the planet.

Wading Birds: The Canary In The Coal Mine?

Joe Rimkus Jr.
Miami Herald Staff

It's not a canary or a coal mine in Florida, but the idea from Audubon of Florida is the same. Wading birds hold the same function as the canary, and in this case the coal mine is the Everglades. Tabitha Cale with the society says things are dire.

The 20th anniversary of the Wading Bird Report is out and there's some bad news. Everglades restoration is not going well. The report shows that in 2014 there were 34,714 wading bird nests in the Greater Everglades. That's 28 percent fewer than in 2013. 

The biggest drops included little blue herons, 83 percent, tricolored herons, 42 percent, and snowy egrets, 47 percent.

Counting wading bird nests is an indicator of where water flows are improving.  The report shows the area with great progress is the Kissimmee River Basin. Meanwhile, Everglades National Park still needs improvement.

There's promise on the legislative side. Last month Governor Rick Scott set aside $150 million in his budget for the Everglades. It's part of a 20-year plan to pump $5 billion into protecting and restoring the ecosystem. This week President Barack Obama proposed in his budget for another $195 million for the Everglades.

Locations of wading bird colonies with 50 or more nests in South Florida, 2014. Source: South Florida Water Management District

  Twenty-years after the first wading bird report, things are not all bad news. Cale says, "I think we're getting there in terms of getting important projects finished, like the Central Everglades Planning Project. That's something that really will improve a lot of the conditions in the Central Everglades and allow to move water into the Southern Everglades."

Cale adds, "As we restore those water flows, not only will we protect these beautiful birds, it will also push back against sea water intrusion as well protect coastal habitats and reduce land loss."

We are halfway through the Everglades Restoration Plan set back in 2000. It's an effort to restore and protect the natural ecosystem of the Everglades. It covers 18,000 square miles over sixteen counties at a cost of more than $10 billion dollars.