Running on Empty

A century of messing with Mother Nature has robbed the Everglades of too much water. Now we don't even have enough for ourselves.

This scramble is happening amid a growing regional awareness of the interconnectedness between urban and rural settlement and the natural environment. More than a dozen local, state, and federal groups are currently studying the problems of ecosystem restoration and management, trying to find a mutually supportive balance between a healthy environment and a strong South Florida economy. They're trying to rectify years of myopic resource management. "In a place that has 60 inches of rain a year," exclaims Jim Webb, regional director of the Wilderness Society, "there ought to be other constraints on development than water." The looming water-supply crisis has everything to do with the way we have historically rigged and bastardized the delicate natural ecosystem of South Florida to suit ourselves. The government officials who have their hands on the valve are now realizing that in the struggle of competing water needs, we can no longer take what we want when we want it. They're also learning the cost of a century of ignorance and arrogance.

On this rainy afternoon, Tom Segars, water-production superintendent for the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department, is squeezed behind the wheel of a county truck heading toward the Northwest Wellfield. A round man with a full beard, Segars oversees operations at Dade's wellfields and treatment facilities. ("He's the guy that you got to remember when you open your faucet every day and have water pressure," explains his boss, Water and Sewer Department deputy director Jorge Rodriguez.)

Segars also embodies some of the current tension about competing water needs in South Florida. His job is to get enough clean water to Dade's users 24 hours a day. But as a native Miamian and an avid fisherman, he understands the irreplaceable value and fragility of our natural ecosystem.

Historically, Segars says, water was never a problem to get in South Florida: Dig down a couple of feet and there it was. "That's a significant picture," he says, pointing out the truck's window. A pasture to the south of NW 58th Street has flooded, driving several cows to refuge on a slender rise. They cluster together under a tree, and remain still. If they move, they'll be swimming. "That's the way this area used to be: flooded. The water supply down here was actually regarded as a problem."

In fact, most of southeast Florida used to be submerged, and its modern history has in many ways been defined by its human inhabitants' relationship to water. The Everglades once swept from the banks of Lake Okeechobee and flowed unimpeded in a shallow, southwesterly 50-mile-wide sheet to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, feeding aquifers beneath the coastal ridge to the east.

The disruption and manipulation of this natural system began in earnest after the Civil War, with the appearance of northern land speculators who envisioned new empires springing out of the sawgrass. By the early 1900s, developers had set about draining the territory south of Lake Okeechobee with a network of locks, dams, and canals to create land for settlements and farms. In the late 1940s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under Congressional orders, accelerated the transformation of the Everglades with a massive plumbing project that diked and diverted water to provide flood control, to dry out land for new settlements, to create and irrigate farmland, and to supply fresh water to South Florida's burgeoning population. Today about 1500 miles of canals and levees crisscross the region from the Kissimmee River in Central Florida to the Florida Bay. The network, by some estimates, successfully eliminated more than 50 percent of Everglades wetlands.

Now the water-supply system is jointly controlled by the Army Corps and the state, via a system of pumps and locks and marshy water-storage areas. (Yes, Mother Nature has been replaced by a team of nerdy engineers and scientists sporting pocket protectors.) But by turning valves here and closing gates there, man has been unsuccessful in mimicking the historic flows of the Everglades. A dramatic reduction of fresh water flowing to the natural ecosystem has resulted in the widely documented demise of the "River of Grass," of Florida Bay, and of the coral reefs off the Florida Keys.

At the same time, the needs of the growing human population of Southeast Florida are on the verge of surpassing the outdated water-delivery system's ability to send water to urban and agricultural areas. The situation stands to get even worse: According to Charles Blowers, chief of the research division of the Metro-Dade County Planning Department, Dade's current population of about 2,030,000 is expected to increase by nearly 900,000 people in the next 20 years.

"The days of buying property, drilling a well, pulling it out, treating it, and sending it to the public are over," declares Segars. "That's a tough thing to say. But unfortunately we're running out of options for water supply. It's going to be a lot more difficult to get, and it's going to result in higher water bills."

Out past Krome Avenue, Segars drives his truck up on top of a high earthen levee that abruptly separates urban development from the natural system. He slides a cigarette from a fresh pack of Winston Lights and gets out. "This is the Everglades," he says grandly, waving his arm in a wide arc. To the west of the levee, a vast expanse of marshy sawgrass rolls out toward the horizon. "This is what Florida used to be like. It's the River of Grass. It's all water. And it's glorious!" A kingfisher swoops low and out of sight. "That's neat as shit," Segars remarks.

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