Historically, the Everglades measured over four million areas and served as a home to indigenous people and thousands of species. Having once spanned down from the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, through Lake Okeechobee and all the way down to Florida Bay and the Florida Keys, the Everglades is now only half of its original size.
Diversions of freshwater, agricultural nutrient pollution and loss of habitat have reduced the life-giving ecosystem so drastically, that the United Nations now considers the Everglades one of the world’s most endangered natural wonders.
Photo by Brian Call
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. The Everglades Foundation worked with nearly two-dozen other private and public organizations to identify the essential goals in working towards fulfilling CERP’s promise.
Among these are improving and protecting water quality, providing water storage needs and restoring the historic water flow from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.
“We need to clean the water, take out the fertilizer and build marshes that are designed to clean the water as it flows south,” says Dr. Tom Van Lent, senior scientist at the Everglades Foundation.
The Foundation’s scientists are involved in ongoing projects to clean the water, as well as improve water storage and flow. “Everglades restoration is like trying to assemble the world’s largest, most complex, eco-oriented jigsaw puzzle,” says Van Lent, “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.”
EAA Bell Glades
In December 2007, the South Florida Water Management District took another major step by voting to buy up to 180,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar Corp. The land will be used to clean and store water. The current proposal to purchase this property encompasses 73,000 acres with an option to buy the rest at a later date.
In announcing the original plan, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist praised the Foundation and its allies for their ongoing commitment to save the natural wonder that is the Everglades. “Their role could not be overstated,” Crist said. “It was incredibly significant and terribly important all along the way, giving me advice…I’m enormously grateful to the environmental community. Without them we wouldn’t be here today.” But while the U.S. Sugar Corp. plan represents a giant step forward for Everglades restoration, it is not a cure-all.
Sugar canes grown in the EAA
“The U.S. Sugar transaction is good news because it gets at two problems,” says Van Lent. “It provides land to clean the water and to provide for the water supply. Now we can present a plan that’s very straightforward and people can see how it solves their problems. It’s made a solution much more understandable to people. “But it’s not a solution for taking out the dams that are blocking the flow south,” Van Lent warns. “There are a number of dams that inhibit water flow throughout the Everglades ecosystem south of Lake Okeechobee. We can probably safely remove these.”
The Tamiami Trail, which links Miami and Tampa, is one of those dams, and steps are being taken to alleviate that problem. In December 2009, an $81 million project to replace a mile-long stretch of the Trail broke ground. The bridge, to be constructed about a mile west of Krome Avenue, will allow water to flow freely into Everglades National Park for the first time since the Trail was constructed in the 1920s. Also moving ahead is the C-111 N. Spreader Canal project, which will correct the flow of fresh water to Florida Bay.
“We need to restore the function of the Everglades, so when it gets dry, we still are able to manage water resources effectively to satisfy the needs of man and nature,” says Van Lent.
- One out of every three Floridians (8 million people) rely on the Everglades for their water supply.
- The Everglades comprise the largest subtropical wet-land ecosystem in North America.
- The Everglades is a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve.
- While it is often described as a swamp or forested wet-land, the Everglades is actually a very slow-moving river.
- Once spread out over 8 million acres, the Everglades ecosystem reaches from the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee, where waters from the lake slowly move south toward Florida Bay.
- Native Americans living in and around the river called it Pahayokee (pah-HIGH-oh-geh), the “grassy waters.”
- Birds were so plentiful in the Everglades that it was said they “darkened the sky” when they took flight.
- America’s Everglades is home to 73 threatened or endangered species.
- Just months after Florida become a state in 1845, the legislature took the first steps that would lead to draining the Everglades.
- Periphyton, the mossy golden-brown substance that is found floating in bodies of water throughout the Everglades, is the dominant life form in the River of Grass ecosystem.
- The Everglades is the only place in the world where the American Alligator and the American Crocodile co-exist in the wild.
- Mosquitoes play a vitally important link in the Everglades food chain. The larvae of grown mosquitoes provide food for a variety of native fish that are critical to the diet of wading birds.
- The ubiquitous grassy plants known as sawgrass (a sedge), have serrated, razor-edged blades of grass that are so sharp, they have been known to cut through clothing.