Without the Everglades, Florida really wouldn’t be Florida. That would be like Colorado without the Rocky Mountains, or Arizona without the Grand Canyon.
The subtropical wilderness that is the Everglades is created by slow-moving fresh water flowing south from the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, through Lake Okeechobee, through sawgrass and tree islands to the mangroves and seagrasses of Florida Bay.
The Everglades’ 1.5 million acres of wetlands are home to more than 350 species of birds, including the Everglade Snail Kite, Southern Bald Eagle, Wood Stork, and Roseate Spoonbill, according to the Audubon Society. It is also supports Florida panthers, alligators, crocodiles, manatees, black bears, river otters, marsh rabbits, Everglades mink and a host of other wildlife – much of it unique. This vast diversity of flora and fauna inhabits many different eco-systems: freshwater sloughs, marl prairies, tropical hammocks, pineland, cypress, mangrove, coastal lowlands, marine, and estuarine.
The Bad News
The bad news is that this unique natural resource – once spanning nearly 11 million acres – has been whittled down through land conversion and drainage. The waters that historically fed the “river of grass” have been obstructed and diverted.
Because Lake Okeechobee is treated as an impounding reservoir, too much untreated fresh water is discharged into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. As a result the inadequate flow of fresh water flow through the Everglades makes Florida Bay, the largest contiguous seagrass meadow in the world and crown jewel of Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys, too salty.
Too much salt in all three of those estuaries creates seagrass die-offs, dangerous algae blooms, multi-year ecosystem collapse and economic hardship.
Algae blooms have been a particular problem in south Florida recently, with Governor Rick Scott attempting to have a federal emergency declared in July.
Nutrient pollution from agricultural and urban runoff causes the majority of freshwater cyanobacteria blooms. Other conditions that contribute to blooms are stagnant water resulting from a lack of natural flushing and land clearing – all connected with changes to the natural flow of water south from Lake Okeechobee.
Record rains in January caused the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to release polluted water into rivers and estuaries to keep Lake Okeechobee from overflowing. The algae bloom grew so large it reached area beaches.
Costs are mounting from health hospital and doctor visits, beach cleanup activities following fish kills, and losses in tourism.
The Good News
The good news is that this isn’t really “news”. The mistakes of the past have long been noted, and efforts are underway to protect, preserve and restore Florida’s crown jewel.
In 2000, Congress passed the 30-year Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) to restore, protect and preserve 18,000 square miles of land over 16 Florida counties.
Since then government, citizens groups and individuals have been working to improve and protect water quality, provide for water storage needs and to restore the historic water flow from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.
It Won’t Be Easy
Dr. Tom Van Lent, senior scientist of the Everglades Foundation, says that “Everglades restoration is like trying to assemble the world’s largest, most complex, eco-oriented jigsaw puzzle. Just when you think you have all the pieces, you realize you need help identifying other pieces of the puzzle so you can complete the picture without missing something critical.”
It’s Critically Important
The Greater Everglades Ecosystem is a critical element of Florida’s economy and role as an international center for business, agriculture, and tourism. The economic impact is immense. It is an irreplaceable and unique ecological jewel. Countless unique species of birds and animals call it home. Six million people depend on the Everglades for fresh water, and for their quality of life.
Florida is on the right path, but there are still many challenges remaining. All Floridians should appreciate this unique resource and support efforts to maintain our “River of Grass.”