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The Everglades: A 30-Year Work In Progress

More than 100 years ago, Florida’s Everglades covered the southern tip of the state, starting at Lake Okeechobee. Today, most of the system has been carved away to make room for growth in the Orlando and Miami markets.  One of the biggest plugs in the system is the Tamiami Trail, a road that acts as a dam, and cuts diagonally across the Everglades from Tampa to Miami. Efforts are now underway to make part of the trail a series of bridges, a project South Florida Water Management Assistant Director Ernie Barnett says would, in his words, “pull the plug in the bathtub”. 

"They strategically lined the bridging up with historical flow paths," Barnett said during a November hearing before the Florida Senate, "so the 2.6 miles of bridge and the one mile existing bridge will allow about 4,000 acre-feet of flow per day and remove the damming effect that Tamiami Trail has.”

Pulling The Plug

Tamiami, along with South Florida’s network of canals, has contributed to starving the Everglades of much-needed freshwater. It has helped divert the natural flow of the South Florida watershed elsewhere, to make the region habitable for humans.

The Everglades itself acts as a water filtration system: water comes in, it trickles down into the earth and recharges the state’s underground aquifer—which provides drinking water to nearly all Florida residents. But when the water flow is cut—the aquifer can’t recharge.

“Maybe people wringing their hands over this should say we’re in a water management crisis," said Erik Stabenau, an oceanographer with Everglades National Park.

For about 30 years, promises to restore the Everglades have been made – and then broken. To date, only two projects have been completed, but more are on the way. 

Everglades Restoration A Key To Florida's Water Future

During the past several years Florida has dealt with polluted rivers, toxic algae blooms, saltwater intrusion and even drought—leaving questions about the future of water in the state unclear, but the answer to those problems could largely come by trying to restore the Everglades. Stabenau says many of the problems the state has seen this year—overflows from Lake Okeechobee, a lack of freshwater storage, and saltwater intrusion in South Florida, can be traced back to the destruction of the Everglades system:

“It used to be that the Everglades was our storage. Lake-O would flow South, Everglades would fill up several feet deeper than they are today," he said. "That water would then percolate down, refilling the aquifer...the water would flow slowly to the South out to the coast, lower the salinity in the coastal system...and that system doesn’t work that way anymore.” 

Those estuaries would act as a buffer against the saltwater in the ocean that’s contaminating south Florida drinking water wells. The state is also throwing away freshwater, when it steers overflows from Lake Okeechobee out into the ocean, as it did this summer.

On the way into Everglades National Park, cities give way to towns, and towns, yield to acres and acres of farmland. Late-model cars sit along the highway, their owners bent down deep in the fields tending to the crops. Those crops are nurtured by fertilizers. And with no natural buffer between the park and the farmland, when it rains, that fertilizer-filled water flows, adding to the Everglades’ many problems.

Inside the park tourists walk the pathways alongside birds standing in shallow ponds. There is even an alligator relaxing by the side of the narrow road that leads into the park. At the visitor’s center, there’s a display chronicling the history of the Everglades, and the clashes between farmers, developers, environmentalists and governments: all with different visions for what the Everglades should be.  

Florida lawmakers will consider a $220 million proposal for addressing Florida’s water issues during the upcoming legislative session. Among the plans are some that would directly impact the Everglades.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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