Can We Save the Florida Everglades?

Clyde Butcher

Austin Merrill traces how restoration of the state's greatest national park—with its 750 plant and 350 bird species, not to mention endangered manatees, crocodiles and panthers—is moving too slowly.

The land has been cut neatly into squares. Gone is any semblance of wilderness; even the manufactured curves of the subdivisions, quixotic attempts to make the planned seem natural, have petered out. Here, on SW 320th Street, about 40 miles southwest of Miami, we are surrounded by farm plots, a grid crisscrossed by roads that separate citrus from squash, mango from pineapple. The canals that flank these fields are the lifelines of this complicated construction. They quench the parched land in the dry season and drain it when it gets too wet. Delivering water and taking it away, these are the ditches that built South Florida—the outdoor plumbing system that destroyed the Everglades in the process.

We’re heading east toward Biscayne National Park, more than 170,000 acres of protected territory that encompasses mangrove wetlands, Biscayne Bay and the first of the Florida Keys. Just over a century ago, before nearly six million people lived in the greater Miami area, this was part of the Everglades. Laura Reynolds, executive director of the Tropical Audubon Society, is among those who want to return the land to its rightful owner. She is giving me a primer on the ways in which everything down here—from the birds to the bay to the fashionistas in downtown Miami—relies on the health of the Everglades. 

“It’s all connected, and people are starting to get it,” Reynolds says. “Once they see that restoring that ecosystem is the only way to preserve their drinking-water supply, they realize we’ve got to get it right.”

The Everglades used to cover nearly all of South Florida and was home to some of the world’s most diverse plant and animal life. For thousands of years water would move from its headwaters, near Orlando, down to Lake Okeechobee, which during the wet season would spill over its southern banks, sending the water farther south in a slow and shallow sheet flow several dozen miles wide. It spread through a complex tropical ecosystem of sawgrass marshes, wet prairies, cypress swamps and hardwood hammocks, then emptied into the lagoons and mangroves of the Ten Thousand Islands, to the west, or Florida Bay, to the south, wedged between the end of the mainland and the Keys.

America’s assault on the Everglades began in the early 1500s with the arrival of the first white man, Spanish explorer Ponce de León. He was beaten back and killed by members of the Calusa Indians, whose territory included much of the southwest coast. Many more would-be conquerors were to come, including industrialists, governors and even presidents. Although their Native American adversaries were eventually overrun, the land proved much more stubborn.

What these men had in common were ambitious and fantastical plans to drain the Everglades of its water, leaving behind the promise of the most fertile and valuable agricultural land in the world. What they also had in common was failure. For decades promises were broken and fortunes lost as one visionary huckster after another tried to dredge his way to riches and dry, solid ground. It wasn’t until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers arrived in the 1930s that humans began to turn the tide against Mother Nature.

The Army Corps got serious about digging, spending 30 years building a 143-mile dike system around Lake Okeechobee and bulldozing enough canals through South Florida to make the peninsula look like an urban subway map. Cutting off the natural freshwater flow not only dried up wildlife habitats but also resulted in saltwater intrusion, the ocean seeping into the limestone aquifer underground, killing plants and animals along with crops and threatening the drinking-water supply for the southern part of the state.

With the Everglades dying, conservationists, the public and a bipartisan political effort finally rallied to the cause. In December 2000 President Clinton signed into law a whopping $7.8 billion multidecade restoration plan. Designed to remove a portion of the canal infrastructure and filter polluted farm runoff, the plan would lessen freshwater releases into the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, capture and conserve excess water in the rainy season and reestablish a healthy sheet flow to the Everglades.

Then 9/11 happened, followed by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the economic crash of 2008. Everglades restoration was pushed to the back burner, even as development continued to rob South Florida of wildlife habitats, water releases from Lake Okeechobee sparked algae blooms that made beaches unswimmable and drinking-water supply ran dangerously low.

A renewed push led by the Army Corps, now on board with efforts to undo its decades of digging, was launched in late 2011 to reinvigorate the restoration efforts. Top scientists were brought in to evaluate progress; conservationists and politicians got behind it. A study analysis and draft report were completed in less than two years by the summer of 2013. Things looked back on track.

“The Army Corps has changed a lot since they first dredged Florida. They’ve started to understand the biology of what we can do to protect ourselves from certain flood situations,” Reynolds says. “But this land wants to flood. And for the sake of the ecosystem, it should be allowed to flood. Yet the mission of the Army Corps is to provide flood protection to people. And they’re also the leaders of restoring the Everglades. That’s a problem.”

We paddle into the bay, the water so warm, you almost can’t tell when your hands get wet. Algae-covered rocks lie beneath us, where beds of seagrass should be. We come across a gash in the mangroves, the opening of a canal about ten-car-lengths wide, one of dozens of various kinds of canals in and around the park. A bit upstream a huge gate hangs over the canal like a guillotine. When open, water gushes into the brackish bay, a jolt to an ecosystem that’s supposed to receive its freshwater in a trickle.

“We’re killing our nurseries,” Reynolds says. “By pulsing the water into the estuary instead of maintaining a gradual salinity, the fish and shrimp and everything else get blown out.” At Reynolds’s suggestion I drive west from Miami, heading out on the Tamiami Trail. The two-lane road was completed in 1928 after 13 years of construction, a feat of engineering that connected Miami with the Gulf Coast but blocked the lower Everglades from its natural source of water. Today the road is dotted with tourist attractions: restaurants selling fried gator tail, outfitters offering half-hour airboat rides. Everglades protects 1.5 million acres of territory south of the road. It’s the third-largest national park in the lower 48 states, yet it covers less than half of the original park.

The Army Corps elevated a mile-long section of Tamiami last year, an attempt to restore some of the sheet flow to the park. But the levee is still there—an earthen ridge that runs along the north side of the road for much of the way—as are the canals that parallel the road and cut away at right angles every few miles. “Raising Tamiami has had no effect,” says Mike Baena, an airboat tour guide. “The managers still control the water flow. Open the locks and look how much water we’ve got running through. Then they could [close them and] drop these boats to the bottom in two days. They should get rid of the levee and just let it flow.”

Opinions about how to fix the Everglades are easy to find. Workable solutions are another story. What to do about the water flow, in particular, is tricky. Whether you’re managing an airboat tour operation or running a farm, you want to be able to predict water levels—and the less those levels move around, the better. Flora and fauna, on the other hand, adapted over millennia to the Everglades’s wet and dry seasons. A constant water level that’s somewhere in the middle would wipe out many of the species here.

“Certain segments of society have grown to like the Everglades the way it is, not the way it needs to be,” says Fred Sklar, one of the most respected scientists studying the Everglades today. “They want the water just right. But the natural system had a lot more variability to it.”

Sklar is the chief scientist at the Loxahatchee Impoundment Landscape Assessment, or LILA, an 80-acre replica of the Everglades that he has overseen since its completion in 2002. LILA is an hour north of Miami, on the edge of a wildlife refuge that is the last piece of the original Everglades still in existence this far north. Sklar and Eric Cline, with whom he built LILA, use the compound to study plant and animal life both above water and below. On a blistering late-June morning, they show me around, proudly pointing out birds, mosquito fish and the sparkling-clear water. “It’s cleaner than your drinking water,” Sklar says. “And it’s what the ecosystem naturally produced!”

Together the two have realized that the best chance for a viable and healthy future—for the Everglades and the citizens of South Florida alike—comes not through lecturing people about some kind of environmental morality but by appealing directly to concerns about the things that matter most to their lives.

“Restoring large ecosystems like this is not done for the sake of the ibis or wood storks or alligators; it’s for our economic well-being,” Sklar says. “It’s about having the clean water supply that we need. It’s about having a hurricane buffer to prevent storm surge from drowning us out.” A manmade structure that could accomplish those things would be worth billions of dollars, Sklar adds. But we don’t need a manmade structure. We’ve got the Everglades. Still, it’s not easy to make all the pieces fit together. Now that we’ve added farming to the ecosystem, it’s difficult to undo. “For this freshwater to get to Biscayne Bay, it has to pass through agriculture. How do you do that?” asks Sklar. For restoration to work and to stop saltwater intrusion, those fields need water. “But the more water that’s in the ground, the worse the roots are for the avocado trees,” he says. “And I love avocados.”

Sklar was one of the scientists called upon by the Army Corps to help write that 2013 study analysis. He and his colleagues submitted the nearly 10,000-page final report for review in August 2014, after a previous version was delayed in April, when Army Corps officers refused to sign off on it, potentially delaying crucial funding for res­toration projects. At the time, the Everglades Foun­da­tion, one of the central en­­viron­mental groups fighting for restoration, was blunt in its criticism: “The blame for this failure—and future damage to the environment and economy—now is squarely on the epaulets” of the Army Corps. (The Army Corps insisted that it remained com­mitted to restoration efforts but needed more time to review the study.)

Down in Florida Bay, on the southern edge of the national park, where the decades of digging and pollution have taken a massive toll on the health of this “end of the pipeline” ecosystem, frustration is mixed with stubborn hope. Jerry Lorenz is the state research director of Audubon Florida, in Key Largo. “It’s frustrating how slow it goes—how everything’s a damn battle,” he says. “But ultimately it comes down to dollars, and people’s property values are going down as a result of all this. And that pisses people off. And once that happens, the political will comes around.”

Lorenz sits at his desk, looking like he’d much rather be knee-deep in Everglades muck, counting nests and eggs of roseate spoonbills, the indicator species he spends much of his time studying. “Thinking about what the Everglades was historically and wanting to return to that—yeah, it’s disappointing,” he says. “We’ll never get back to more than a third or half of what once flowed through there. But that doesn’t mean you don’t do the restoration. Even incremental changes show great promise.”

In the 25 years since Lorenz began working in Florida Bay, he’s learned to celebrate the small victories. “Convincing the Army Corps to stop digging holes is almost impossible—it’s what they do,” he says. “When I moved down here, they had two operating modes: flood control and water supply. That was their mantra. Anything else, who cares. Now they have a third: Everglades restoration. So they’re paying attention.”