In the Everglades, where water seemingly engulfs everything and everyone in a mucky, haunting landscape the size of New Jersey and Connecticut, Eric Eikenberg sees a thirsty ecosystem. On this breezy and surprisingly pleasant-for-Florida mid-May day, the CEO of the Everglades Foundation sits atop an airboat's three tiers of benches pointing out signs that the largest subtropical wetlands in North America is critically wounded—and slowly being revived.
"In January or even February this is about three feet of water," he says as the boat floats in six inches of muddy water known as slough. "When the water flowed naturally, you would have enough here during this part of the dry season. You have eight million people who rely on this ecosystem for drinking water. But if we don't engineer this correctly, you're going to lose habitat for this national treasure. It's a complex balancing act, both scientifically and politically."
Eikenberg, SPA/BA '98, has been a lead player in this delicate dance since being tapped in 2012 to head the country's most prominent Everglades advocacy organization. A former political operative and lobbyist, he now fights for reptiles with the same fervor he once did for Republicans.
He takes off his Nikes and white socks, rolls up his khakis, and hops off the boat onto one of the thousands of tiny islands in this 50-mile-wide, 125-mile-long slowly flowing river. "This is what my kids think I do all day," jokes Eikenberg, who spends most of his time wearing a suit and working on dry land.
Standing on a swath of soggy soil the size of a pitching mound, he's surrounded by saw grass that reaches above his knees.
"If there were high levels of phosphorous, fertilizers, or pollutants in this water, it would change the entire dynamic of what we're seeing right here," Eikenberg, 38, says. "All this saw grass would turn into cattails. Cattails are the tombstone of the Everglades, because they thrive off phosphorous. When we see too many cattails we know there's too much pollution in the water. These saw grasses demonstrate a healthy part of the system. When we see this, you know the restoration efforts are succeeding."
Environmental rehabilitation is not a field for those inclined toward instant gratification. Progress in the Everglades has been marked for years by tiny victories that pale in comparison to bureaucratic delays and inaction. It's a one-step-forward, two-steps-back process, the pace of which can seem as sluggish as the flow of the river itself.
Complicating matters is the reality that restoring the Everglades, the largest and most expensive environmental project in history, is about much more than just the environment. Like the plants and animals here (some of which don't live anywhere else on Earth), human beings have an insatiable appetite for the Everglades' chief resource—water.
"Water is the new oil," Eikenberg says. "The minute you lose control of it, you're finished."
Not long after Florida achieved statehood in 1845, its newly minted legislature concluded that the Everglades needed to be drained. Politicians haven't stopped fiddling with it since. Over the next century, a series of dikes and canals built to enable agricultural and residential development artificially altered its natural flow, which runs southwesterly from its headwaters at Shingle Creek in Orlando, through Lake Okeechobee, into Florida Bay.
After a massive hurricane—the second-most deadly in American history— killed more than 2,500 people in 1928, President Herbert Hoover ordered construction of a flood-protection dike in Lake Okeechobee. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers then connected canals that enabled it to empty water from the lake both west into the Gulf of Mexico and east into the Atlantic Ocean.
Perhaps no year has been as important to the Everglades as 1947, when Everglades National Park formally opened and Congress formed the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project, which built 1,400 miles of canals, levees, and water control devices. That same year Marjory Stoneman Douglas, an activist and writer, published The Everglades: River of Grass. The book remains highly influential and is credited with popularizing the term "river of grass," which had been used by Native Americans indigenous to the area for years. (Much of the Everglades is still in Miccosukee and Seminole Indian territory.)
Douglas, who died in 1998 at the age of 108, is a folk hero to many environmentalists, and parks, statues, and schools are dedicated in her honor. It was from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Broward County that Eric Eikenberg graduated in 1994.
"You could see the Everglades in the outfield," says Eikenberg, a baseball player who moved to south Florida from his native Long Island after ninth grade.
But Eikenberg, intrigued by a school assignment to follow the 1992 Bush-Clinton presidential election, found politics more fascinating than environmentalism. So he headed to AU for college, where he immersed himself in the Washington culture by interning each semester in a variety of roles.
In the office of House majority leader Dick Armey he studied the Contract with America. He worked at the Heritage Foundation think tank and at a lobbying firm. As an intern in Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's office he was taught how to make Cuban coffee. Prior to his junior year, he served as a page at the 1996 Republican Convention in San Diego. It was a thorough, only-in-D.C. education that cemented his interest in politics. When Eikenberg's friend, future U.S. senator George LeMieux, asked him to run his campaign for the Florida statehouse immediately after graduation, he jumped at the chance.
"That previous December I did the two-week [School of Public Affairs's] Campaign Management Institute, and we were assigned Jim Bunning, who was a member of the House running for Senate," Eikenberg says. "All those consultants, all those experts came in during a condensed, intense period of time to explain the nuts and bolts of campaigning. Being able to carry that out six months later in an actual state legislature race was exciting."
LeMieux came up short, but Eikenberg's behind-the-scenes political career was off and running. Because five college internships weren't enough, he spent his summers in the Fort Lauderdale office of Rep. Clay Shaw. When the receptionist took a leave of absence, he was hired, and after a later stint in Tallahassee with the state Republican Party, he ran Shaw's 2000 re-election campaign.
It was a razor-close race, one slightly overshadowed by another election being contested that year in Florida. After a two-week recount (hanging chads and all), Shaw won by 539 votes. At the age of 26, Eikenberg moved back to Washington, where he served as Shaw's chief of staff until the 13-term congressman was voted out of office in 2006. Next it was back to Tallahassee to serve in the administration of then-governor Charlie Crist, for whom he was chief of staff from 2008 to 2009. He was working as a lobbyist when the Everglades Foundation called in 2012.
"You may ask, why the Everglades?" he asks from behind his desk. His office is on the sixth floor of the former Burger King corporate headquarters, which overlooks picturesque Biscayne Bay south of Miami. Two pairs of binoculars, for bird watching, rest on a window sill. "The policies of preserving this ecosystem are all very much intertwined in the politics. Clay Shaw was the author of the House's comprehensive Everglades restoration plan that Bill Clinton signed in 2000. In a weird way I've [always] been around this Everglades issue."
Formed 20 years ago by hedge fund billionaire Paul Tudor Jones and the late developer George Barley, the private nonprofit Everglades Foundation is not a typical environmental group. Its board members, who include singer Jimmy Buffett and golfing icon Jack Nicklaus, hail from throughout the country and harbor views across the political spectrum. The foundation raises nearly $7 million annually, employs five scientists (including hydrologists, wetlands ecologists, and environmental engineers), lobbies politicians on behalf of the ecosystem, and aims to increase education and awareness about the issues surrounding it.
"Eric impressed us from the first moment we met," Jones said when Eikenberg was hired. "He has a deep understanding of what it takes to achieve success both in Washington and Tallahassee and he has the leadership skills that will help the foundation continue to be at the forefront of Everglades restoration."
In the summer of 2013, nasty blue-green toxic algae began bubbling to the surface in several central Florida waterways. This picture is not the postcard that masses of chapped-lipped northerners have in mind when they migrate south for a brief vacation or a permanent one from winter.
"Who wants to buy a million-dollar home with smelly, toxic algae in the water?" Eikenberg asks rhetorically.
The impact of Everglades restoration on the state's economy is never far from his mind. In 2010 the foundation commissioned a study by Mather Economics that reported the project would create nearly half a million jobs and generate four dollars for every dollar it invested over a 50-year period. The biggest benefit would be in real estate, the study showed, where property values would jump 35 percent due to increased quality of drinking and recreational water. Cutting down on water purification methods, like desalination facilities, would result in a 28 percent economic gain. Tourism, boating, fishing, and hunting are other industries that would benefit from a clean Everglades, both the report and Eikenberg say. That's not inconsequential considering that Florida should pass New York as the country's third most populous state late this year or next, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Thanks to decades of manmade engineering, each day 1.7 billion gallons of water are dumped in the gulf and the ocean. Worse, that water is largely polluted, which harms fish and reefs in the estuaries. Runoff from increasing residential and commercial development and fertilizers from agriculture south of Lake Okeechobee (much of it from sugar farming) creates harmful nutrients in the water, which destroy mats of composite algae called periphyton.
"It looks like a bunch of oatmeal on top of the water," says Eikenberg, pointing to the brown slop. "It's made up of all kinds of organisms that birds and fish feed off of. The fish are food for the birds, the birds are food for the alligators. Periphyton is gone when you have high nutrients."
Florida spends billions of dollars each year to clean the water in natural wetlands, in large part because its average citizen uses 180 gallons of water per day, according to the foundation.
There are a lot of swimming pools to fill in the Sunshine State.
"It's water quantity and water quality," Eikenberg says of the twin goals of restoration. "Instead of wasting billions of gallons by putting it out to sea, we want to direct more clean water to the central part of the Everglades."
That's why the foundation has strongly supported projects like raising a stretch of the Tamiami Trail, a road that runs straight through the Everglades and now acts as a dam. By doing so, water will again flow south, instead of being diverted by a canal to the east. The first mile recently was completed—25 years after it was authorized, but not funded. Earlier this year Florida governor Rick Scott committed $90 million in state funds toward completing the next 5.5 miles. He praises the foundation's advocacy.
"The Everglades Foundation and Eric Eikenberg play a large role in protecting Florida's natural treasures and ensuring the necessary steps are taken to be good stewards of Florida's environment," Governor Scott says.
"The health of the Everglades is critical to our communities . . . plays a major role in attracting tourists to our state, and is essential to continuing our efforts to create more jobs and opportunities for Florida families. That's why this year we worked to invest more than $250 million towards Everglades restoration. I look forward to continuing to work with Eric to ensure that Florida's natural treasures are protected."
Still, setbacks are numerous. In April, the Army Corps of Engineers delayed a key decision on the Central Everglades Planning Project, an important step in the restoration plan that would send Lake Okeechobee water south into the central Everglades. The project, which requires Congressional authorization, is critical because it provides the necessary infrastructure to move water south, thus reducing the harmful discharges of polluted water east and west.
The delay left Eikenberg as testy as a hungry gator.
"This means Congress will be unable to act on [the plan] for years," he told the media. "Once again, the Corps is bogged down in its own bureaucracy, stumbling past important deadlines, showing an unwillingness to be creative, and determined to follow a trail of red tape that leads to public frustration."
After a career spent in the political arena (and perhaps a future in it—Eikenberg, who has four children from ages seven to three, says he'd like to run for office one day), he's used to navigating in the political muck. But his patience is not perpetual.
"Everglades restoration and protection is a nonpartisan issue," he says. "This is not a regional issue, it's not even a state issue. It's not the Florida Everglades. I avoid that term as much as I can. This is America's Everglades. It's a natural treasure in the same breath as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park, Mount Rushmore.
"Quite frankly the general public doesn't even know why this is important. If it was a mountain range, people would be in awe because you'd see it, but it's a mosquito-ridden, alligator-infested [ecosystem]. But it is the lifeblood of south Florida."
In 2013, Everglades National Park drew just more than one million visitors, ranking it 19th among the 59 national parks. (Great Smoky Mountains was tops with 9.3 million.) Those who do go are treated to a landscape breathtaking in its vastness, made even more remarkable considering that the Everglades is now just half its original four million acres.
Over the deafening blare of the airboat's propeller, Eikenberg points out a soaring snail kite, one of 67 threatened or endangered animals in the Everglades. A large alligator, its eyes and snout poking above the water, glides gracefully through the slough. This is the only place in the world where gators and crocodiles coexist.
"That's what this is all about, making sure we hold as much water as we can in the core part of the system so we avoid impacting the ecology and preserve the water supply for eight million people,"
Back at the dock the puffy white clouds are quickly replaced by ominous gray ones. Seconds later the sky opens and rain begins to pour. There's no escaping the water—it's everywhere.