As Michael Grunwald reported in The Swamp, the first government report on the Everglades concluded that it was “suitable only for the haunt of noxious vermin, or the resort of pestilential reptiles” (4). However, the ecosystem was much harder to kill than people realized: as Jerry Lorenz of AoF recently put it, talking about the declining population of Roseate Spoonbills in Florida Bay, it took “years and ‘unbelievable’ sums of money” to do it. Decades of attempts to “reclaim” the Everglades resulted only in failure.
The long process of destroying the Everglades began in 1845, almost immediately after Florida became a state. The first Florida legislature petitioned the United States Congress to “survey the Everglades with a view to their reclamation” (Senate Document 89). In 1848, Buckingham Smith thought that it would involve simply opening the transverse glades to the sea, and connecting Lake Okeechobee to the coasts via the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.
As usual, things took a mite longer than people anticipated. It wasn’t until 1881 that Hamilton Disston agreed to implement official government policy of drainage by generously allowing the government to sell him 4 million acres of wetlands for a mere 25 cents per acre, on the condition that he drain them. His plan was to channelize the Kissimmee River so that the water flowing into Lake Okeechobee could then be released to tide through the canals proposed (but never completed) by Smith. The only reason Smith’s scheme failed is that, like generations of Florida schemers after him, he wanted to do it faster and cheaper. Instead of building the canals to the scale required, he wanted to get drainage started, then expand after people bought in to the visible signs of success. He put profit before principle, and wound up dead of heart disease.
After Smith’s scheme failed, after Disston’s scheme failed, there was Napoleon Bonaparte Broward’s scheme (the Everglades Drainage District). That, too, failed. Where all these schemes failed, the Army Corps of Engineers succeeded. Their plan, known as the Central and South Florida (C&SF) Project, was undertaken to protect the valuable agricultural lands around Lake Okeechobee from a recurrence of the disastrous hurricanes of 1926 and 1928 that left thousands of people dead when the levees around the lake failed. The new project, begun in 1929, began as the Okeechobee Flood Control District; its mandate was to build a dike around the lake. The federal government joined in, and in 1936 the Herbert Hoover Dike was inaugurated. Problems remained.
Today, a giant network of canals (more than 100 water control structures and 1400 miles of canals) “controls” water levels across the former Everglades ecosystem. These canals have impeded the natural waterflow on which the system depends. There’s too much water when the system needs to be dry, and not enough when it needs to be wet. Florida Bay is dying for lack of fresh water, while Barnes Sound’s productive food web is drowning in it.
The water that does come in is all too often polluted. And pollution is the proximate cause of CERP. In 1988, U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen filed Case #88-1886 in U.S. District Court in Miami against the state of Florida for failing to enforce its own water laws, thereby harming Everglades National Park and the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The suit sought to prove legally what had already been well demonstrated scientifically: that these “diverse and complex ecosystems…require non-polluted, low nutrient waters for their ecological integrity because the native flora and fauna developed under these circumstances” (3). The most crucial element for the system is phosphorus, which cannot occur in concentrations greater than 10 parts per billion without harming the ecosystem.
In 1991 the state, after a long series of maneuvers finally, in a dramatic gesture by then-governor Lawton Chiles (well captured by Grunwald), “surrendered.” Chiles told the court “I am ready to stipulate today that the water is dirty! I am here and I brought my sword. I want to find out who I can give that sword to!” (Grunwald 290).
There were several appeals but eventually the project now known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was born.
The Audubon Society of the Everglades is committed to the full implementation of CERP, and will oppose any project or undertaking that threatens this goal.