The massive $14 billion, multi-year project to restore the Everglades has several goals: preserve a source of drinking water for South Florida's human population, restore the environment to its natural condition wherever possible, and provide conditions in which wildlife can thrive.
Scientists working on the project say all of that is in jeopardy now because of what they call short-sighted cuts in critical research -- research designed to monitor the restoration efforts to see if they're working.
"It's a 59 percent cut, that's devastating," said the U.S. Geological Survey's Dr. Ronnie Best, who coordinates of all Everglades restoration science efforts.
Best says the state of Florida is slashing 71 percent of its contribution to the research program through a big cut to the South Florida Water Management District, and the Army Corps of Engineers is chopping 40 percent of its portion of research money.
The bottom line: the science budget is going from $7 million to less than $3.5 million for the next fiscal year.
Among the research that will be defunded are surveys of crocodiles and alligators. They are an indicator species, which means the health of the swamp can be gauged by the health of the gator and croc populations.
"Alligators can tell us whether or not we're successful," said Dr. Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida wildlife biologist who has studied Everglades crocodilians for years.
Mazzotti's research, which provides some of the guidelines for the restoration projects, is on the chopping block, which is one of the reasons Best is so upset.
"We will not know if the projects are working, that's why we have this Monitoring Assessment Plan, MAP is what's being cut by 59 percent," he said.
Best contends the only way to tell if taxpayer money is being spent wisely is to study the health of key species, like alligators, certain fish populations, and wading birds. Decimating the research program will mean at least a dozen scientists will most likely be laid off. Plus, he says, it's like the state is shooting itself in the foot.
"You're going to take this program, which is about four to five percent of the total cost of restoration, and you're going to cut it in half?" Best asked, rhetorically. "You don't save any money doing that, you don't save any money at all, give me a break, compared to what you're losing, which is an enormous amount of information."
The state's portion of the research money has already been cut. Because the cut was so severe, Best says there's a possibility the Army Corps of Engineers may now decide to put more money back into the program -- realizing that without scientists taking water samples and doing their studies in the swamp, the big projects are essentially proceeding blind.