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New life for the "River of Grass." (the Everglades, Florida) (Watershed Wars)

Not far west of the glittering skyscrapers that mark Miami's perch on the pastel edge of Biscayne Bay, one final traffic light launches the Tamiami Trail, U.S. 41, entry into a landscape that looks for all the world like an African savannah. The irony of that remarkable transition is not that the Everglades wilderness exists cheek by jowl with one of the nation's fastest-growing urban areas. It is that the south-Florida megalopolis, built on land that was once itself part of the Everglades, is no longer even a remotely good neighbor.

In fact, the insatiable thirst of 4.1 million people, compounded by agricultural pollution, are together strangling one of the world's most irreplaceable natural areas. South Florida's urban sprawl, and an extensively altered drainage system, have created a classic collision between Man and Nature. At stake, among many other valuables, are a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.

Surely the Everglades faces an uncertain future. However, a recently forged commitment by the state of Florida offers real hope. It seems the once free-flowing "River of Grass" might actually survive.

Long before Disney World, art-deco hotels, and an influx of immigrants, the Everglades was a pristine, flee-flowing watershed that drained the entire southern half of the subtropical Florida peninsula. Underlain with limestone and sloping barely two inches per mile, south Florida was a 100-mile-wide, 300mile-long shallow sheet of fresh water seeping toward the 800-square-mile estuary of Florida Bay.

That meandering, southward seep once nutured seemingly endless miles of sawgrass, stands of cypress, pinelands, coastal prairies, and hardwood hammocks. Orchids and lush ferns were everywhere. The forest-and the Everglades is indeed a rich and unique forest--supported mahogany, seven species of palms, gumbo-limbo, strangler fig, and four species of mangroves.

Still today, mangrove forests with their distinctive stilt-like, aerial root systems line the estuarine edge of the Glades. More than 50 species of fish crowd the shallow bays that ring what is now Everglades National Park. Freshwater sloughs, channels that focus the water flow in some places, attract animals in the dry season. Alligators help then too by digging wet holes for themselves. Through dry and wet seasons, the deep, spongy muck remains a rich and stable home for a mindboggling web of life.

Now-rare animal species such as the Florida panther, American crocodile, green turtle, wood stork, red-cockadecl woodpecker, and manatee were once thriving parts of that natural community.

Gradually, all of that began to change. In 1849, 10 years before the end of the battles between the U.S. army and the Native Americans generally known as the Seminoles, the first proposal to drain the Everglades was made. Between 1890 and 1917, there were efforts to halt declining populations of birds hunted for their plumage, and an attempt to transfer ownership of palm forests on Paradise Key to the National Park Service.

By 1916 a railroad had reached Key West, extensive reclamation of land had begun, and beach areas began to sprout hotels. The Tamiami Trail shot west in 1928, and vast cypress forests fell between 1930 and 1950.

After World War II, the appeal and population of south Florida grew dramatically. Agriculture took root, and the wealthy began their seasonal migrations. An unbelievable network of canals, levees, and dikes, now totalling 1,400 miles, was built to funnel water from the Everglades ecosystem to the burgeoning urban areas.

Everglades National Park, the name deriving from the six-inch-deep, marsh ecosystem of the "River of Grass," was rounded in December 1947. In 1974 the 570,000-acre Big Cypress Preserve was added to the 1.5 million acres of the Everglades.

Between those two dates, urban and agricultural growth sparked a land-reclamation boom that only today shows signs of abating. Entire communities sprang up on drained wetlands. From all corners of the country, future retirees of the World War II generation bought into the dream of "Florida Living."

There were development debacles, gross destruction of the environment, swindles, and, eventually, an unflattering image of Florida as a place where land was sold "by the gallon."

Ironically, in 1947, the same year that birthed Everglades National Park, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers effected the Central and South Florida Flood Control Project, the massive restructuring of south Florida's watershed that would eventually threaten the park's survival.

Big government siphoned off Everglades water on behalf of the thirsty. The urban areas put the water to all the normal uses. The most upscale communities became inordinately fond of spotless luxury cars and fairway-like lawns. Huge agricultural establishments drank deeply too, in part to satisfy the nation's winter hunger for vegetables. There were voices of dissent, but money spoke louder.

Then the Everglades began to speak. The whisper was so frail that few heard it at first. But it grew louder. Some species of its dwindling wildlife appeared on the lists of creatures the world was about to lose.

The draining of areas north of the Everglades for agriculture has reduced the soil layer from as much as 12 feet in 1900 to as little as half that now. Partly in response, water levels have dropped as much as five feet, severely reducing the ability of plants and animals to survive fluctuations in rainfall.

At the same time, nutrient-rich pollution from agricultural fertilizers is choking the watershed with cattails and other nonnative vegetation, further upsetting the natural ecology of the parkland downstream.

One result: Florida Bay receives less than one-quarter of the fresh water that normally flows from the estuary of the Everglades. Increasing salinity may be the culprit in the demise of 30,000 acres of sea grass. And when water is released from upstream agricultural areas after heavy rains, the deluge further upsets an ecosystem historically accustomed to the gradual absorption and release of water.

Drought has added insult to that injury. In 1988, the second drought in a decade turned marshes into parched mudflats, with devastating impact: The park's alligator population may have dipped from 50,000 to 10,000 in the last four years. In 1990, the fewest birds in the park's history established nests.

The plight of the park was such a pressing environmental problem that in 1988 the U.S. Department of Justice sued Florida over its failure to stop the slow strangulation of the Everglades. Its case was based principally on the polluted runoff from sugar-cane farms, the backbone of south Florida's agricultural industry.

On April 25, 1991, House Bill 2157 passed the Florida legislature, and environmentalists around the country breathed a sigh of relief. According to Jim Lewis, communications director for the state's Department of Environmental Regulation, the bill authorized the South Florida Water Management District to set up a storm-water utility and to tax agricultural interests on the amount of polluted storm water they pass on to the Everglades. The revenue generated from the tax, and the ability to condemn agricultural land, will combine to create huge buffer marshes intended to filter out the phosphorus pollution that is killing the Glades' fragile sawgrass.

How quickly or fully that goal will be accomplished is uncertain. Public sentiment favors efforts to save the Everglades. And vegetable and sugar-cane farmers have accepted paying a "fair share" of the cleanup costs. But they maintain that there is scientific uncertainty about how much marsh is needed to absorb the pollution. Estimates of the project's cost range as high as $400 million.

Governor Lawton Chiles, inaugurated in January 1990, ran on a campaign pledge to defuse the Everglades impasse and settle the federal suit, estimated to have cost the state more than $5 million. But even with the state bill passed, no one knew what the fate of the federal lawsuit would be.

Optimism seems appropriate at this point. Last summer, months of needed rain relieved the drought, and an end to the federal lawsuit was negotiated. The suit was formally dropped last February.

The solution set to be implemented is the creation of a 35,000-acre buffer to separate the agriculture areas south of Lake Okeechobee from Everglades National Park and the 100,000-acre Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The South Florida Water Management District will complement that step with water-use and water-quality regulations for farms.

Farmers have the right to further challenge the plan, and they likely will at hearings this summer. Those challenges could fine-tune the restoration effort. But U.S. District Court Judge William Hoeveler symbolized the resolve of many watching the case when he refused to delay implementation of the plan while an environmental impact study takes place.

In all likelihood, the current plan is just the first phase of a restoration effort that could take as long to implement as it took the problems to develop. But the pace of the effort seems to be accelerating.

The Army Corps of Engineers (see the feature "The Greening of the Corps," beginning on page 13) has been studying how to recreate a natural water pattern in south Florida. The goal is to allow more water to flow through the Everglades' Shark Valley to Florida Bay, rather than be shunted east.

Perhaps best of all, state and federal efforts are adding extensive acreage to the preserved area. Some formerly agricultural land is already being returned to wetland status. For example, on 3,700 acres of sugar-cane fields in Palm Beach County being activated as "filtration marshes," wetland plants and wildlife are quickly taking over.

The legislative initiative is good news for recreationists too. The park attracts more than one million visitors a year, but most come in what is the off-season for virtually every other national park. Winter days there are normally sunny, warm, and free of bugs. Most visitors tour the park's roads, visitor centers and nature trails, or enjoy a sightseeing tour by boat. But canoeists flock there as well--modern-day explorers who came to see first-hand the wild sawgrass rivers and the deserted tropical beaches that run for miles on the Ten Thousand Islands. The park's water trails include the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway and the 24-mile canoes-only route between Bear Lake and Cape Sable.

The increasing appeal of eco-tourism can only mean a wider audience for improvements in the Everglades' natural area.

It seems likely-finally-that the future will brighten for the Everlades. But the brightening will dawn slowly, because the ecological, political, and bureaucratic forces at work are truly ponderous and plodding.

Thankfully, the park's new superintendent is used to handling change. Richard Ring comes to south Florida from highly praised conflict-resolution efforts at the Delaware Water Gap [New Jersey] National Recreation Area. There he dealt with developers and environmentalist, and negotiated and four-state water-quality agreement. But here he faces and unprecedented task--recreating a natural flow of water in an area dramatically channeled to humankind's uses.

On one practical level. President Bush's proposed 1993 budget would up Everglades land-acquisition funds from $6 million to $7 million, and it assigns $15 million to improving water flow through the Everglades,

On the other hand, funds to help return the Kissimee River to its meandering course have been cut. And entrance fees to Everglades National Park, now $5 a car, reportedly have been targeted to increase to $10, with none of that money dedicated to remedying the environmental plight of that particular park.

More troubling to many observers is Bush Administration's proposal to implement new definitions of wetlands.

Environmentalist fear that federal protection of substantial Everglades acreage would end if the new definitions are adopted [see "Wetlands in Chaos," beginning on page 17]

On the other hand, a recent Miami Herald poll showed that a clear majority of south Floridians "reject the notion of sacrificing the environment to boost the economy." Those attitudes may be tested with the arrival of predicted increases in the price of south-Florida water.

It is a very human struggle, this controversy over the vast but injured Everglades. And like most human vs. nature conflicts, the most important answers will be found within.

Randy Johnson writes about travel and the environment from his home in Boone, North Carolina.
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Author:Johnson, Randy
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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