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Peril in Paradise.

You're trekking through a vast swamp teeming with life. Wild bushes called mangroves line the rivers, their thick roots sprawling through the water like huge spider legs (see photo above). Red-and-yellow long-necked birds trudge through knee-deep pools of brown muck. Leathery crocodiles slink leisurely through the swamp, their eyes popping out at you above the water's surface. For many plants and animals, this is paradise on Earth. But it's a paradise in danger.

For centuries, the 44,000-square-km (17,000-square-mi) Florida Everglades was a burgeoning marshland packed with exotic wildlife. But during the 1940s, the U.S. government drained half of the Glades of its water to clear a path for farming and urban development--today 6 million people call the region home! Now it seems the government's move may have caused far more harm than good.

Conservationists (scientists and activists who aim to preserve the environment) say draining the Everglades ravaged the areas fragile ecosystem, or community of organisms. John Ogden, of the South Florida Water Management District, estimates that the Glades' once-abundant wading-bird population plummeted from 80,000 to 15,000 in the last 60 years--the strongest indicator yet that the Everglades is in jeopardy.

Ecologists (scientists who study living organisms and their environment) warn that draining the Glades has also deeply impacted humans, who rely heavily on the area for water. Is it too late to reverse the damage? The apparent answer: not yet. In July, government officials handed Congress an $8-billion proposal to restore the Everglades to its original state. If approved, it will be the largest environmental restoration effort in world history. The plan? To put the system's water back where it belongs.

RIVER OF GRASS

For thousands of years, the Everglades thrived as a wetland, or waterlogged area. During wet seasons (June-November), water from Lake Okeechobee (oh-kah-CHO-bee) spilled over the lake's south side, traveling through hundreds of acres of plant life (see map, page 18). The water then seeped through the Everglades like a river of grass, gliding south for nearly 160 km (100 mi) into the Florida Bay. During fall and winter the Everglades dried out, allowing natural fires to burn and the area's grasses to regenerate, or regrow, the next year.

In the early 1900s, humans started flocking to Florida in record numbers. To make room, government officials sacrificed the Everglades, which was "seen as a wasteland since it was so wet all the time," says Charles Lee, senior vice president of the Florida Audubon Society.

In the early 1940s, the state drained much of south Florida for housing and farm development. But by building canals that directed swamp water into the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean, the river of grass was suddenly choked of its life line. That, says Lee, is where the Glades' problems began.

GLADES INVADERS

By the early 1950s, the U.S. government had chopped the Everglades into several connected pieces. These included a large agricultural area, three water conservation areas (land where Glades water flows through canals), and the Everglades National Park (see map above). Soon after the Glades was drained, agriculture, including sugar farming, quickly grew into the leading industry along Lake Okeechobee. But farming introduced fertilizers containing phosphorus, a mineral that threatens much of the area's native vegetation. Sawgrass, the Everglades' dominant type of tall grass, was one species harmed by excess phosphorus. The contamination caused an influx of cattail, a plant that thrives on phosphorus. "What used to be vast sawgrass marsh is now cattails in ankle-to waist-deep water when it should be dry," says Kris Thoemke, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Everglades office.

In an effort to further dry up the Glades for human development, government officials also introduced the melaleuca (mel-ah-LOO-kah) plant, an Australian tree. Melaleuca's invasion of tree islands, stands of trees in the middle of sloughs (SLOOS), or open-water marsh habitats, affected several native animal and plant species and lowered slough water levels. "The melaleuca outcompetes everything--it's just a nuisance," says Robert Shuford, an environmental scientist at the South Florida Water Management District in West Palm Beach.

PLUMBING PROBLEMS

Dumping Glades water into estuaries, areas where river water meets the sea, also threatens Everglades ecology. When freshwater is pumped out of the Everglades, it mixes with salt water at one of many estuaries surrounding the south Florida peninsula. One harmful effect: fresh water can kill thousands of fish and shrimp eggs that need salt water to survive.

Sending too much water into estuaries causes salt water to ooze into local underground aquifers, sections of rock that hold water under land like a huge sponge (see diagram, below), when salt water creeps into aquifers, coastal wells pump salty water, which humans can't use. "We all have to drink water, and take baths," says Shuford. "when we alter the freshwater delivery to the system, we shoot ourselves in the foot!"

A number of animal species like the manatee, a sea mammal related to elephants, are also losing the battle against land development. Without action to reverse the damage, these species could suffer irreversible consequences.

The government's new plan to replumb the Everglades comes after years of debate between government officials, farmers, and conservationists. Ecologists hope to reclaim as much farmland as possible and let it flood with water as it once did. They also hope to set limits on how much phosphorus-containing fertilizer the sugar industry can use in its softs. But enforcing these plans won't be easy. Sugar companies oppose land regulations because they think soil changes will be dire for business.

For now, the proposals main objective is to remove almost 400 lan (250 mi) of canals that route water from Lake Okeechobee into coastal estuaries. "what we're talking about is revitalizing the Everglades that's left by putting water back into the system," explains Lee.

If Congress approves funding to save the Everglades before next summer, scientists say signs of change could be visible as soon as 2005. But a project this size could take 20 years to take hold completely. Still, conservationists urge Congress to pass the plan quickly. "The time to act is now," Thoemke argues. "The Everglades is a national treasure--we have to protect it."

RELATED ARTICLE: Everglades Then and Now

In the 1940s the U.S. government drained the Everglades of half its water. The move drastically affected the Glades' plant and animal life.

A. For centuries, water flowed freely from the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee (1) to Florida Bay (2) B. Today, water is channeled through canals and rivers, either toward the sea (1) or to farm land on the lake's south border (2). Next, water is drained into one of the three water conservation areas (3) and finally into Everglades National Park (4) and the sea (5). Today's National Park is the only area that truly resembles the historic Everglades.

RELATED ARTICLE: Species in Danger

NAME: American Crocodile

FACT: Adults can grow to 5 m (15 ft) long.

THREAT: Habitat loss and killing of crocs for their skins.

NAME: White Egret

FACT: Beak turns black when it's ready to breed.

THREAT: Drying-up of its marshy habitat.

NAME: Snail Kite

FACT: Got its name from its favorite food, the apple snail.

THREAT: Loss of apple snail's habitat.

NAME: Green Turtle

FACT: Females return regularly to the same beach to lay their eggs.

THREAT: Habitat loss and killing of turtles for human use.

NAME: Manatee

FACT: Its ground-up bones are used as medicine in some tropical cultures.

THREAT: Habitat destruction and accidents with powerboats.

NAME: Florida Panther

FACT: Florida's state animal, there are only 30-50 left.

THREAT: Loss of habitat due to farm development.

RELATED ARTICLE: Creepy Salt Water

Normally, wells near coastal areas pump up fresh water that flows through aquifers, underground water-storage units (top). But when too much Everglades water is channeled out to sea, ocean water creeps into aquifers, and wells pump up water too salty for human use (bottom).
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:man-made threats facing Florida Everglades ecosystem
Author:WEINSTOCK, MAIA
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Oct 18, 1999
Words:1319
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