The Everglades:

How did it used to be?
What did we do to it?
What happened next?
How are we going to fix it?


In the beginning, Florida was all wet – at least a lot of the time. There were no canals and no levees. The water spread out and moved slowly south.

The Kissimmee River was 100 miles of winding river. It wasn’t just a river. It was a whole floodplain. The snaky curves in the river slowed the water down. When the river got full, the floodplain overflowed. The water spread out so that, when it was wet, the hot sun, the shallow floodplain, and the natural vegetation evaporated huge amounts of water. The marsh grasses along the river built up peat soils. They have no oxygen. When there is a lot of nitrogen in the water, they bubble it off into the air. The scientific name for the process is “denitrification under anaerobic conditions”. Vegetation takes up nutrients, but it dies and puts it back. When shallow water flows over muck soils, the nitrogen bubbles away to the sky and phosphorous laden sediments settle into the muck.

The Greater Everglades Ecosystem spread all the way past Orlando. All the water that didn’t evaporate oozed southward to the Lake. It was clean and it was slow.

Lake Okeechobee didn’t have any dikes. When it rained a whole lot, the Lake spread out over vast areas.

That slowed the water down. Like the Kissimmee floodplain, the Lake floodplain was shallow. In the rainy years when the Lake overflowed, the water in the floodplain got really hot on a summer afternoon and evaporated like crazy. The Lake had marshes all around it. They built up peat soils that removed nitrogen. They served as a nursery for birds and fish. Because the Lake had so much room to spread out in, the Lake levels didn’t vary dramatically from dry season to wet season.

The St. Lucie River did not connect to Lake Okeechobee. It didn’t come anywhere near it. It was a coastal estuarine river with a north and south fork that ran parallel to the coast instead of west out to the Lake.

The Caloosahatchee was a much bigger watershed than the St. Lucie. The natural river flowed from marshes near the Lake all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. When it rained a lot, there was some Lake overflow to the Caloosahatchee.

South of the Lake was the great custard apple swamp. Think of it as a sump. It was a shallow dish at the Lake’s southern edge where water stood til it overflowed south. Sediments and nutrients settled out in the sometimes stagnant swamp. Peat accumulated. Nitrogen bubbled off. Water evapotranspired from the trees at a great rate. It cleaned the water up, slowed it down, and got rid of excess water

Unlike the custard apple marsh, it was a sterile ecosystem. Sawgrass doesn’t grow when phosphorous exceeds 10 parts per billion. Even in the natural world, it took a lot of filtering of upland runoff to get down to 10ppb. It was a staged process: water in the Lake accumulated some sediment and nutrients from natural runoff; they settled out in the pond apple swamp; and the water that flowed south from there was squeaky clean enough to support the sawgrass Everglades.

The Everglades was not just the sawgrass river. It was the edges beyond the sawgrass that made it so productive. The shallow short hydroperiod wetlands in the low lying pinewoods that bordered the sawgrass made possible the huge wading bird population that used to darken the sky.

Never underestimate a short hydroperiod wetland. You can see them throughout Florida pine flatwoods that have not been ditched and drained. In the summer they are flooded. In the winter they dry down. That slow winter dry-down in different sized little wetlands concentrates all the food that grew in the summer into a small area that makes it possible for wading birds to find enough protein to lay eggs and raise babies. The summer flooding of these multiple little wetlands makes them spread out to twice their size and increases evaporation in wet years. When it is very dry these little wetlands are dry or very small and lose very little water from evaporation. When it is very wet they spread out in the hot sun and throw away water to the sky.

East of the wet prairies and the sawgrass system there were transverse glades that led to Biscayne Bay .

Toward the southern end of the system, Shark Valley curved off to the southwest and fed water to Florida Bay. Taylor Creek curved off ESE and fed water to the corner of Florida Bay enclosed between the mainland and the Florida Keys.

Clean water moved slowly, appropriate to the seasons of bird nesting and fish spawning, and made Biscayne Bay, Florida Bay, the Florida Keys and the third largest barrier reef in the world all a part of the Greater Everglades Ecosystem.

That’s what was here when Gov. Napolean Bonaparte Broward determined to drain the swamp.


Florida never has average rainfall. It always has too much or too little. The average is 55inches. In 1947 it rained over 100 inches.

It was just too tempting to have all that land and have most of it underwater half the time. The following story of what we did to make the water go away – without ever thinking there would be droughts when we would want it back - is not in chronological order. Rather let’s start at the top and work our way down.

The Kissimmee was a 100 mile windy river. We cut its throat and made it a 50 mile ditch that drained the prairie around it as well as Mickey Mouse and the suburbs of Orlando. In wet years, more water hit the Lake quicker and dirtier. We gave out permits to drain the headwaters into the ditch and we gave out water use permits for new more intense uses on what was now dry land. We did that in the 1960s, just as we were beginning to know better.

We put Lake Okeechobee in a strait jacket called the Hoover Dike. We started the big dike way back in the 1920s. At that point the custard apple swamp south of the Lake had been plowed into vegetable and sugar cane fields and a little dike held back the Lake. The area had been settled for the wonderful rich black soil that had been the pond apple peat. The 1926 hurricane washed over the dike to the west and destroyed the town of Moore Haven, killing 200 people. The 1928 Hurricane broke the little dike and killed thousands of people to the south. We determined to conquer the unruly Lake. At first the Hoover dike surrounded the lower two-thirds of the Lake. When the Lake got caged into a smaller area, levels came up more quickly in wet times. The Lake could not spread out over vast shallow areas. It couldn’t flow south. It rose up. So we connected the Caloosahatchee River on the west coast to Lake Okeechobee and we dug the St. Lucie Canal from the Lake to the coastal St. Lucie River in Stuart with a 15ft lock and dam at Tropical Farms. By 1930 the Martin County Commission was sending its first resolution to Congress asking them to stop dumping the Lake and killing the St. Lucie Estuary.

In the 1960s we finished surrounding the Lake with a levee. The floods in 1947 had overflowed into wide pastures NW of the Lake and caused foot rot in cows. Now the Lake was entirely enclosed and rose faster. Water users around the Lake, especially to the south, wanted more water, so the dikes were made higher and a second lock was built where the St. Lucie Canal leaves the Lake at Port Mayaca. The Fish and Game Commission warned that the higher Lake levels and the more dramatic variation in Lake levels would kill the Lake. They were right.

The 1947 flood flooded all of South Florida and caused the creation of the Central and South Florida Flood Control District. It was a bold and effective system of man- made plumbing with canals and levees and pumps to make the water go away. They dug the C23 Canal on the Martin/St. Lucie County line to drain the wet prairies in the western pinelands. They dug the C24 canal that now runs through Pt. St. Lucie and the C25 in Ft. Pierce. All along the coast south through Miami they dug and widened canals to get rid of too much water.

By now sugar growing had expanded beyond the old pond apple swamp below the Lake. The U.S. government has a complicated strategy for subsidizing sugar prices. Sugar growing kept expanding well into the 1990s. The Everglades Agricultural Area where cane is grown covers over 400,000 acres –as big as Lake Okeechobee itself. It needed water. More water was kept in the Lake. A fuller Lake needs to be dumped more often. The only way to dump water really fast is out the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie. It flows by gravity from 15ft above sea level to sealevel. Big pumps can’t pump that fast

Way back in the 1920s we dammed the whole system up in the lower part with the Tamiami Trail which went from Miami to Naples. It laid down a narrow roadbed that cut off the river of grass.

As part of the South Florida Flood Control Project after the ’47 floods we created the Water Conservation Areas south of the Everglades Agricultural Area and north of the Tamiami Trail. They became sometimes stagnant ponds operated by canals, pumps and levees. Big levees went in on the east side to protect the coastal suburbs from flooding and drain the short hydroperiod wetlands. A long levee went in along the Tamiami Trail with only two pump stations to send water south. There are only two pump stations in the levee north of the Trail.

We could have done worse, we almost built a major International Airport in the Big Cypress Swamp just west of the water conservation areas. By the sixties environmentalists where demanding that politicians listen to what scientists were saying about water and wetlands. The airport didn’t happen and the Everglades are still there.

In the far south end of the system we drained farm land in southern Dade County and built the Aerojet Canal to carry barges and to send more water to tide. The rocket plant and the jobs that were promised never happened, but the canal cut off the flow from Taylor Creek to the upper eastern corner of Florida Bay.


In the 1960s the Everglades caught fire and a stinking gray smog hung over coastal South Florida. Biologists had been documenting the fact that the man- made plumbing system was killing the Everglades National Park. That wasn’t nearly as effective in getting the attention of policy makers as several million coughing coastal residents.

In the 1980s Lake Okeechobee went belly up. Algae bloomed from too many nutrients. Fish died because the algae bloom used up the oxygen. Dead fish added nutrients and used up oxygen. The Lake was a huge smelly mess. Toxic blue-green algae followed. Lakeside towns lost their water supply. The bloom faded and then came again. Politicians flew in to for photo ops to show how shocked and concerned they were. The bloom faded. Then it came again. And again. And finally began to get the attention of policy makers.

In the 1990s Florida Bay went belly up. Flying over the vast expanse between the mainland and the Keys all you saw was pea soup green. Sponges and seagrass died from lack of oxygen. With nothing holding down the sediments there was less light and more nutrients and more algae. It went on and on.

In the late nineties the “lesioned fish” appeared in the St. Lucie Inlet when they dumped Lake Okeechobee. That’s a polite term for a fish that swims by with a gaping red hole in it.

Call it the Environmental Scream. It is brutal and miserable and there is nothing you can do about it at the time. It is unpredictable in timing, but in each case it will come again and it will eventually come more often.

The reason is we got the water wrong. It used to move slow and clean with natural filters and sediment traps and denitrifying muck flowways. When there was too much of it, it flowed out over vast floodplains or expanded little wetlands in the pinewoods and evaporated at a great rate. The new system worked fine for “average years”. Nature doesn’t do averages.


We realized we never should have channelized the Kissimmee River right after we finished channelizing it. We’ve been trying to put it back to its windy self ever since. We’ve made great progress and still have a ways to go.

In 1992 the Congress directed the Corps to come up with a plan to undo the damage done by the Central and South Florida Flood Control Project that was created after the ’47 floods. It was about the Greater Everglades Ecosystem and all the canals and dikes and drainage that got the water wrong.

In 2000 the Congress authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP)

CERP is a combination of plumbing and restoration. You can’t put everything back because so much of what was once wet is now covered with subdivisions.

The plan calls for reservoirs all around the Lake to “take the load off” the Lake so it doesn’t get too high and doesn’t get dumped on the estuaries. They will also store water for users in the watersheds around the Lake so the Lake won’t be kept too high in order to supply their water needs. The reservoirs will store water when it rains and have stormwater treatment areas (STAs) to clean the water and let it out slowly to the natural sytem.

North of the Lake in Okeechobee County there will be storage and STAs. Where dirty Nubbin Slough comes into the Lake on the NE corner there will be an STA to clean the water.

East of the Lake in Martin County and St. Lucie County there will be reservoirs and STAs on C44, C23, C24 and C25 canals that drain to the St. Lucie Estuary and the Indian River Lagoon. There will be 90,000 acres of Natural Areas built around the state Save Our Rivers wildernesses like Old Trail in St. Lucie County and Allapattah, Palmar and Atlantic Ridge in Martin County. Those areas will store 30,000 acre feet of water and clean it up and let it run out slowly without expensive plumbing and man-made STAs. They will get rid of excess water in rainy years by spreading it out and evaporating it. They will accomplish one of the overarching goals of CERP to expand the spatial extent of short hydroperiod wetlands and recreate sustainable habitat for wading birds and other critters. 25,000 acres of wetlands will be widened and restored. That’s something that can no longer be done further south because it’s paved over.

West of the Lake there will be a large reservoir on the Caloosahatchee to serve water users in the watershed and take the load off the Lake and to provide critical low flows in the dry season to maintain sustainable salinity in the west coast estuaries.

South of the Lake there will be large reservoirs and STAs to hold the water and clean it and send it south where it used to go.

The walls will come down and the canals will be filled in the Water Conservation Areas to recreate a flowing river of grass instead of a stagnant giant sawgrass pond slowly turning into a cattail marsh.

CEPP, the Central Everglades Plan is a group of CERP projects to clean runoff and move barriers to move more water south

The Tamiami Trail will be raised to let water flow south to Everglades National Park. That’s not part of CERP but part of the Modified Water Delivery Plan approved prior to CERP. The first mile long bridge has been completed with stimulus money. So far, it’s about the only thing that has been completed. 5.5 more miles of bridges are planned. The Aerojet Canal in South Dade will be blocked to put freshwater back into Taylor Slough and save the Northern corner of Florida Bay from the current regular algae blooms.

That’s CERP. It has evolved since it was first authorized, but the basic plan is the same: slow the water down, clean it up, and let it flow south.


The state and federal partnership that promised to build CERP has stumbled and fallen apart. Progress has not been made. We have not gotten the water right. Attention falters until another environmental scream happens. Then all the politicians fly in and survey the damage and promise to do better.

In the summer of 2013 it rained too much again. The St. Lucie Estuary is posted with “No Trespassing In the Water” signs because of toxic algae. Dolphin and manatees are dying in the Indian River. There is a huge seagrass die off on the west coast where the Caloosahatchee dumps dirty water from the Lake.

This time it is not just the environment screaming. The public is screaming too. They’ve had enough. This time we have to fix it.