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“River of grass, my ass”

June 30, 2008

Did you know that there’s only one place in the world where alligators and crocodiles co-exist? And only one place in the world where you’ll find a Cape Sable seaside sparrow? It’s a place that 69 endangered species, including the West Indian manatee, call home. That one place is a Massachusetts-sized chunk of land in South Florida known as the Everglades or “the river of grass.” Perhaps you’ve heard of it.  

Maybe you’ve heard that it’s polluted. It is.

What was once pristine wetland is now agricultural land primarily devoted to sugarcane. To sustain their crops farmers use fertilizers and pesticides that wash into the waterways. These chemicals pollute the Everglades and upset the natural balance of the ecosystem by allowing thick clumps of cattails—a native, but fairly aggressive plant—to push out the native sawgrass that gives the Everglades its poetic nickname. As they thrive, cattails make the water less hospitable to the critters that live there by blocking sunlight and sucking up oxygen. Cattail thickets also block water flow and provide less than stellar feeding and nesting grounds for wading birds.

Or maybe you’ve heard that it’s on fire. It was.

In May, almost 40,000 acres of the Everglades—including parts of Lake Okeechobee—burned. While the fire killed lots of animals and tons of vegetation, it also helped the ecosystem by killing nonnative plants and hiding endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrows from the hawks that prey on them.  

Fire is natural in the Everglades, but not to that extent. There’s supposed to be a wet season and a dry season. During the wet season, rains fill the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee causing a huge, shallow river (about 60 miles wide and 120 miles long) to flow south and dump into Florida Bay. Originally, the wetlands stockpiled enough water during the rainy season to keep the Everglades soaked throughout the dry season.

But some guys, including Herbert Hoover, thought they could “fix” the big ol’ swamp. They built dikes and canals and even planted Australian Melaleuca trees to suck up even more water. And then they built cities. During the middle of the 20th century, the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-West Palm Beach area grew four times faster than the rest of the country. (And of course, the rain that’s supposed to be flowing through the Everglades hits the pavement and is escorted to the ocean.) According to World Wildlife Fund, only two percent of the original Everglades ecosystem remains intact or, in Carl Hiaasen’s words, “river of grass, my ass.”

By the end of the 20th century, the focus shifted from draining the Everglades to keeping the wetlands wet. But that’s an oversimplification. Carl Hiassen tells the story behind the story in his novel Skinny Dip:

“Toward the latter part of the twentieth century, a series of severe droughts shattered the cocksure assumption that there would always be plenty of water to steal. Those whose fortunes depended on luring home buyers and tourists to South Florida now contemplated the dreadful possibility that the infernal granola-head environmentalists had been correct all along. If the Everglades dried up or succumbed to pollution, so might the vast underground aquifer that supplied drinking water from Palm Beach to the Keys. Growth would come to a gagging halt, and the dirty fortunes that accompanied it would evaporate faster than jizz on a griddle.”

And so, with the new focus on conservation, the federal government approved the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) in 2000. The goal of CERP is to re-route the fresh water that’s so efficiently whisked into the ocean so that it goes into the wetland and does what it’s supposed to do (ie. make the wetland wet). So far, CERP hasn’t done much, but last week, United States Sugar agreed to turn over 292 square miles of the northern part of the Everglades to the state of Florida. The state would get the land in six years. Reclaiming all this land could help restore the ecosystem by adding a million acre feet of natural water storage—and of course, cutting back agriculture would reduce the amount of fertilizers and pesticides polluting the river of grass.

One Comment leave one →
  1. maukamakai permalink*
    July 2, 2008 7:06 pm

    Today’s New York Times reports that the state of Florida’s purchase of U.S. Sugar land might not be the magic bullet to save the Everglades. Rather, scientists worry that the amount of fertilizer that has doused the land over years of heavy agricultural use might cause more problems.

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