Swamp and Circumstance

Planners hope the Natural System Model can help restore the Everglades. But will it survive politics?

In many areas the shortage of water exposed formerly wet soils, which then dried and oxidized priceless topsoil. Ridges that jutted above the water dropped. Sloughs filled with peat and closed. Tree islands sank. Now, if the water sent back into the Everglades is too deep, wading birds cannot fish and the roots of tree islands will rot. In other parts of the system, such as in Everglades National Park, water levels probably have changed little. So in a physically reduced and altered Everglades, historic water levels as predicted by the NSM might be appropriate for some sections but not others.

Besides excavating in the soil, McVoy and the modelers have also searched through the records of historical and scientific accounts of the Everglades to glean information about the past. In one account from the 1898 book Across the Everglades, the naturalist and adventurer Hugh Willoughby describes his journey from the Miami River through what is now the national park.

"The stream here loses itself among the lily-pads," Willoughby wrote at one point in his trip. "Before you lies a sea of apparently pathless grass, cutting in all directions, spreading out like the lines in the human hand, and whichever one you take you regret that you did not choose the other."

Since the late 1800s development and agriculture have forced a steady drying, replumbing, and asphalting of South Florida. Changes began with a series of canals to drain Lake Okeechobee, which historically overflowed into a vast plain of saw grass below the lake bed. (Today that area is largely sugar cane.) Then in 1910 the State of Florida dug four major canals that caused the most serious damage: the New River, the Hillsboro, the Miami, and the West Palm Beach. The canals, all originating in Lake Okeechobee, funneled water directly to the sea. By the 1940s the Everglades became so dry that huge fires broke out, which, through exposure and erosion, helped flatten the system of ridges and sloughs considerably.

In 1947 a mammoth flood left 90 percent of southeastern Florida underwater. A year later the Army Corps of Engineers responded by providing better flood protection and modifying the four canals, channeling more water back to the Everglades. The engineers called it the Central and Southern Florida Project. A state agency that later became the South Florida Water Management District was created to operate the corps' creation. To reflood the peat soils and the Everglades marshes, they built conservation areas to store water, essentially creating a series of bathtubs. While the conservation areas improved water levels in the previously overdrained Everglades, they did so at the expense of water flow.

With the new flood protection, the corps ushered in 50 years of continuous economic growth. The project became a de facto land-use plan: What could be kept dry could be developed. For a 5000-year-old ecosystem, the results were catastrophic. Further expansion and development, or what the bureaucrats like to call "the built environment," threatens the very quality of life in South Florida. The plan Congress received is widely known as the Restudy because it entails rethinking the original corps project.

Congress and the State of Florida will be asked to allocate about $400 million as the first year's installment, in an effort estimated to cost $7.8 billion over roughly 35 years. (This is about twice what it cost to bomb Yugoslavia.) The Restudy expense would be split between the state and federal governments. The plan ambitiously promises to revitalize the Everglades so that birds and animals can return, as well as to ensure sufficient water supply for a burgeoning urban population.

Every year millions of tourists and Floridians visit the surviving natural wonders: the water conservation areas, the national parks, wildlife refuges, and the marine sanctuary that encompasses much of the coral reefs. All of these areas are in varying degrees of jeopardy. The coral is succumbing to disease. The sea grass in Florida Bay is dying, and is being replaced by toxic algae blooms. The vast rookeries of wading birds that made the Everglades famous are gone. The number of wading birds has dropped to ten percent of what it was just 50 years ago. Examples of deformed fish have been found in at least ten species. Mercury contamination is so extensive that authorities recommend avoiding eating large-mouth bass and other fish caught in roughly one million acres of the Everglades. The tree islands, their roots rotted, are falling over while still alive. Deer starve on little patches of land or drown in rising water. If the natural Everglades continues its decline, the visitors who sustain much of the local economy will eventually go as well.

The destruction of the watershed has repercussions beyond the loss of wildlife or tourist dollars. If the decline is left unchecked, its implications will be felt by every resident of South Florida regardless of whether they are an outdoor enthusiast. Fresh water will likely drop in quality and supply while increasing in cost. Much of the wetlands, which once captured the water and purified it, as well as provided an important habitat for animals, has become subdivisions and strip malls. Ten million people are expected to move to South Florida in the next 50 years. As greater demands are made on a vastly reduced system, the Everglades will become increasingly unable to perform its vital functions. Years of droughts and floods will increase. Wildlife will continue to disappear.

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