South Florida Restoration:

Task Force Needs to Improve Science Coordination to Increase the Likelihood of Success

GAO-03-345: Published: Mar 18, 2003. Publicly Released: Mar 26, 2003.

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Restoration of the South Florida ecosystem is a significant federal and state priority, requiring the development and use of extensive scientific information. GAO was asked to report on the funds spent on scientific activities for restoration, the gaps that exist in scientific information, and the extent to which scientific activities are being coordinated.

From fiscal years 1993 through 2002, federal and state agencies spent $576 million to conduct mission-related scientific research, monitoring, and assessment in support of the restoration of the South Florida ecosystem. Eight federal agencies spent a little less than half of this amount, or $273 million. The South Florida Water Management District--the state agency most heavily involved in the restoration initiative--spent $303 million. With this federal and state funding, agencies made progress in developing information and the adaptive management tools necessary for restoration purposes. "Adaptive management" is an approach for improving resource management that uses models and monitoring as tools to improve the probability of achieving restoration goals. In particular, scientists state that they identified the key factors responsible for ecosystem degradation, such as altered water flow patterns throughout the ecosystem. While scientific understanding of these restoration issues has improved, significant gaps remain in the scientific information and adaptive management tools needed, that, if not addressed soon, will hinder the success of restoration. Gaps in the development of scientific information, such as information on the risks of contaminants to plants and animals in the ecosystem, may prevent action to address risks to the entire ecosystem or to one or more of its regions. Gaps are also present in the development of adaptive management tools--such as models and a comprehensive monitoring plan based on key indicators--that allow scientists to assess how the implementation of restoration projects and plans affect the ecosystem and whether this implementation is resulting in successful restoration. The development of these tools is important to allow scientists to track the progress of restoration. Restoration of the South Florida ecosystem is being coordinated and facilitated by the Task Force, formed from participating federal, state, and local agencies and tribal entities. The Task Force is responsible for coordinating scientific activities for restoration, but has yet to establish an effective means of doing so, thereby limiting the extent to which restoration decisions can be based on sound scientific information. The Task Force established the Science Coordination Team (SCT) to coordinate the science activities of the many agencies involved in restoration, but it did not give the SCT clear direction on which of the responsibilities were a priority for supporting the Task Force, contributing to the SCT's inability to accomplish several of its most important tasks. Further, unlike other restoration initiatives, the SCT works as a voluntary group with no full-time and few part-time staff. Recognizing its resource limitations, the SCT has focused on a few priority responsibilities. Without first clarifying the responsibilities of the SCT and then providing it sufficient resources to accomplish these responsibilities, the Task Force cannot ensure that scientific activities are being adequately coordinated, or that key scientific information is available for restoration decisions.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In order to improve the coordination of scientific activities for the South Florida ecosystem restoration initiative, the chair of the Task Force, the Secretary of the Interior should establish a process, such as review by an advisory group, to ensure that the SCT, Working Group, and Task Force prioritize issues that require synthesis and are critical to restoration decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Science Coordination Group (SCG) has developed a risk-based approach for identifying the issues that are most critical to restoration success. This approach includes (1) establishing teams of scientific experts in various ecological and hydrological disciplines to review models for key needs and gaps, (2) reviews by experts to help prioritize scientific needs and gaps and to improve the prioritization process, (3)continued review and update of the science needs and gaps, and (4) development of synthesis products for broad and cross-disciplined scientific coordination. In addition, the SCG is required to conduct a biennial update of the Task Force's Science Plan. This update will include a review to (1) determine which science needs and gaps previously identified by the Task Force gaps have been filled (2) determine whether Task Force actions are implemented appropriately and in a timely manner, (3) identify any new science needs that have emerged as a result of the restoration process, and (4) identify and evaluate any new science gaps and the actions required to address them. The Task Force has also commissioned an independent commission to assist it in further refining the science gaps identified and the actions needed to address them.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the coordination of scientific activities for the South Florida ecosystem restoration initiative, the chair of the Task Force, the Secretary of the Interior should establish a process that ensures the Task Force identifies key management issues that need to be addressed by science planning.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2003, the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force approved a new charter for the Science Coordination Group (SCG) after it "reevaluated its whole approach to coordinating science." The new charter puts in place several procedural improvements, all of which focus on the need to have management input into science planning. First, the SCG reports directly to the Task Force, whereas previously it reported to the Task Force's Working Group. Second, the chair of the SCG attends Task Force meetings and briefs the Task Force on ongoing matters. Third, the membership of the SCG includes senior scientists and managers from the participating agencies. Finally, the charter includes a specific expectation for the SCG to produce a science plan. The SCG is currently working on this plan.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the coordination of scientific activities for the South Florida ecosystem restoration initiative, as the chair of the Task Force, the Secretary of the Interior should specify the plans and documents--including a science plan focused on key information gaps, a comprehensive monitoring plan, and progress reports for each plan--that the SCT needs to complete and the time frames for completing them.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2003, the Task Force established the Science Coordination Group (SCG) and directed it to develop a plan to coordinate science. The plan is being developed in two phases. The first phase, which includes a description of the approach developed to identify science needs and gaps to facilitate management decisions and to coordinate efforts to fill these gaps. SCG completed Phase I in August of 2004 and the Task Force approved it in December 2004. Phase II, scheduled to be completed in 2006, will include the full identification of science needs and gaps, additional essential coordination actions and processes for ensuring quality science. Following the completion of Phase II, the plan is to be updated biennially.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the coordination of scientific activities for the South Florida ecosystem restoration initiative, the chair of the Task Force, the Secretary of the Interior should evaluate the SCT's current staffing needs and allocate sufficient staff, including full-time management staff, to the SCT so that it can carry out its responsibilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In a March 25, 2004 letter to the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Lynn Scarlett reported that the Office of the Executive Director had reviewed the staffing situation for the newly formed Science Coordination Group (SCG) and recommended that immediate staffing be provided by dedicating staff from within its resources. The Office and the SCG anticipate that additional support may be needed periodically and can be obtained through contracts.

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