We had a terrific group of people in our recent course in the Bahamas
"They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth, remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them: their vast glittering openness, wider than the enormous visible round of the horizon, the racing free saltness and sweetness of their massive winds, under the dazzling blue heights of space. They are unique also in the simplicity, the diversity, and the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose. The miracle of light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the central fact of the Everglades of Florida. It is a river of grass"(Douglas).
Often called the "River of Grass," the Everglades once comprised a vast portion of the peninsula of Florida, the entirety of the area south of Lake Okeechobee. It sustained a complex ecosystem including marsh grasses, cypress trees, herons and other birds, alligators, and panthers. In addition to providing a “unique” habitat, the Everglades transfers water from the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Okeechobee into a natural revitalizing mechanism before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. Given the change in sea level across the state of only about four feet, the time it took for the water to reach the other coast is roughly two years. During this process, aerobic bacteria and decomposers break down pollutants, recycling nutrients and replenishing oxygen in the water. The aquifer depends on these functions as well, because the Everglades directly feeds it.
The massive wetland supports a variety of marine life-- creating shelter for juvenile fishes, sea turtles, dolphins, and the rare saltwater crocodile. The complex maze of channels and shoals that define the Ten Thousand Islands are one of the entrances to the Everglades and this area is home to the majority of the marine life. As water begins its slow twisting migration, the depth of the water column decreases gradually until it becomes just a "shallow sheet of water flowing south at a rate imperceptible to the eye"(Enserick 180). Uninterrupted, the "River of Grass" snakes across the state of Florida, a sheet of saw grass and scattered cypress between mangrove ports. Today, however, only a section of the Everglades has been spared, and even it struggles to survive.
The natural migration of water is now tamed- divided and sectioned into anals and levees, sometimes stagnating into draught because of imbalanced proportions. To open up land for agriculture and development, natural water flows have been diverted, leaving the Everglades and Florida Bay starving for water and condemning wildlife to near extinction. The alterations to the system were born out of ignorance.
In fact in 1845, only months after Florida was granted statehood, "the State Legislature passed a resolution asking the state's congressional delegation to push for federal support for surveying and ultimately 'reclaiming' the Everglades"(History of the Everglades 2385). As the population escalated into the next century, developments and "massive state drainage efforts" were encouraged. Eventually, with a sea of devastation in the wake of human intervention, an industry evolved. The first sugar cane productions were limited by unresponsive drainage efforts. One project, for example, with a price tag of $18 million, returned unpromising results, "yielding little effort in dry land and flood protection"(History of the Everglades 2385). Shortly afterwards, a series of hurricanes eliminate progress and stalled development.
Then, in 1948, Congress authorized the Army Corps of Engineers’ "Central and South Florida Project for flood control, drainage, and water supply"(Clinton). Over the next thirty years, the Corps “carved up” most of the Everglades, sparing a lower section by implementation of a National Park, dedicated by President Truman. This effort, a tiny conservation gesture in comparison, created what remains of the "River of Grass." Even sections of the remaining Everglades are regularly contaminated by a thriving sugar cane industry fueled by the Cuban embargo in the 1960's. And that is not to speak of the network of channels, levees, and ditches constructed with the intentions of "redirecting" the flows into the Atlantic Ocean. This contrivance failed miserably- stopping the water dead in its tracks at the doorsteps of condominiums and hotels, by-products of unpredicted growth in the sunshine state.
Further exploitation, therefore, awakens us to the reality of the consequences of our actions. The facts present themselves with clarity: drought, 50% decreases in the water table in some areas, 90% bird loss, 68 extinct species of plants and animals, water shortages, disrupted and eliminated natural flows, agricultural pollution, …and the list goes on. The Everglades are dying. They once were connected by a continuous flow of water, unified and interdependent of the components in its ecosystem. Now, fragments of its body exist, interrupted and clogged with ignorance.
The Restoration Project recently implemented on December 11, 2000 administers hope. Ironically, the plan is undoing work done by the Corps. On the framework of the restoration, President Clinton had this to say: "I am very pleased that this bill authorizes the Administration's plan to restore an unprecedented natural resource- America's Everglades. Thanks to an historic partnership…, we can begin in earnest an over 30-year journey to complete the largest and most ambitious ecosystem restoration project in the world"(Clinton).
The blueprints to the Restoration Project are "scientifically sound," according to the Army Corps of Engineers. "The goal of the Comprehensive Plan is to restore, protect, and preserve a natural treasure"(CERP 2000). Included in the 4,000-page report submitted to Congress are details configuring costs and appropriations for the Re-Study. The timely overhaul of the current water management system mainly focuses on reconstruction of the "equally ambitious pluming system built by the Corps decades ago"(Enserink 180). Consequently, the diversion of water will discontinue, allowing natural flow. To do this, engineers will remove some 1000 miles of canals and levees.
It addresses flood prevention by manipulating two limestone quarries near Miami into reservoirs, and by constructing 16 more reservoirs elsewhere. Another feature of the plan includes "an unprecedented engineering feat"(Enserink 180)-- the drilling of over 300 wells around Lake Okeechobee to pump up to 6 billion liters of freshwater per day from the aquifer. The most crucial aspect to the vitality of the Everglades is also included in the project-- restoring access to the outflow of the ecosystem. To deliver access, federal agencies would buy 24,000 hectares of farmland, and flood it all. The Tamiami Trail, which lingerly connects Florida's coasts, is to be reconstructed into a more practical arrangement of bridges (totaling 100 miles) to allow uninhibited access for the water.
Getting the water right is "the overriding mantra of the restoration attempt: increasing the flow of water through the Everglades, timing it better for the varied wet and dry seasons"(Doherty 49). Obviously, this proves easier said than done; and with respect to any project, especially an $8 billion 30-year scheme involving an environmental treasure nearly abandoned, there will always be opposition. Disagreements in the framework of the Restoration Plan come from all angles of interest. The most apparent conflict arises out of distrust for the Army Corps of Engineers, based on their previous attempted failure. Logically, the United States Government and the Army are inspired to redeem their reputation for destroying the Everglades, and politics is often delivered at the expense of the environment. Conservation groups speak of the necessity to confer the plans for the project with a non-biased source, in order to become certain.
Another topic for discussion is the very uncertainty of the implementations of the project in a complex ecosystem scientists do not fully understand. Nature is undecipherable, and therefore, there cannot be conviction or proof of success. "The effects of the system of substantially altering large-scale ecological processes are largely unknown"(Doherty 50). True, the project is overflowing with ambiguity, but there is almost never a yes or no answer in environmental science. Regardless of representation, the "Everglades is in peril, if we do nothing, we lose it forever"(Sargent 14).
The Everglades Restoration Project marks a monumental victory for Environmentalism in the new millennium. The vision of present society rarely focuses on the peripheral, systematically disassociated from the implications of our actions on the wellbeing of our future. I have always attributed this process of thought to the structure of our government, technology, and affluence. It seemed we disregarded the future because, arrogantly, many of the environmental problems created in developed nations are ignored. Above any other benchmark, I find this attribute most rewarding in the acknowledgement of the need for a recovery initiative in the Everglades. "The present shouts while the future whispers"(McKibben 113).
After all, the Everglades is only an isolated catastrophe in a world dependent on the exploitation of natural resources. Surrounding our lives are other adversities, but to address them we must regain what we have lost-- the will to live beyond the moment, and to take responsibility for our actions. "The problems that exist in the world cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them"(Einstein), but they are man-made, and therefore, can be solved by man. The fact that the backing of the United States government holds promise and demonstrates responsibility may induce a change in momentum. Environmentalism has come this far.
Douglas, Marjory Stoneman. "The Everglades: A River of Grass" 1947.
Clinton, William. “Statement on signing the Water Resources Development Act of 2000.” Weekly compilation of Presidential Documents. Whitehouse. Washington D.C., 18 Dec. 2000.
Doherty, Brian. “Clinton-Gore swamp fever.” The American Enterprise Oct/Nov 2000: 48-50.
Enserink, Martin. “Plan to quench the Everglades’ thirst.” Science 9 July 1999: 180.
Sargent, Frank. “Senate acts wisely on Everglades.” Tampa Tribune 30 Sept. 2000, final ed.:Nation/World 14.
“A History of the Everglades.” The National Journal 22 July 2000: Environment 2385, Vol 32, No30.
Hoenig, Christopher. The Problem Solving Journey. Einstein, Albert. New York: Perseus, 2000.
McKibben, Bill. Maybe One. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.
“The Plan to Restore America’s Everglades.” Development of the Central & South Florida Project. 1948. http://www.evergladesplan.org/csf_devel.htm (27 February 2001).
“The Plan to Restore the Everglades.” Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. October 17, 2001. http://www.evergladesplan.org/the_plan/p.8.htm (27 February 2001).
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