Courtesy Florida State
By 1996, in comparison with the earliest available estimates of the ecosystem and its components, populations of wading birds declined by 85 to 95%; sixty-eight plant and animal species were threatened or endangered; over 1.5 million acres were infested with invasive, exotic plants; and one million acres were contaminated with mercury.
Because water flows through the Everglades differently than it once did, some areas do not receive enough water, and others receive too much. One of the major habitat types in the Everglades originally consisted of dense sawgrass ridges interspersed with relatively open sloughs that collected water, in an organized pattern, parallel to the flow direction and on a slight decline. Water management is transforming this habitat into a more uniform landscape, with detrimental effects on the Everglades’ plants and animals. Restoration efforts focus on re-establishing more natural patterns of flow, which is closely connected to water levels.
Courtesy Florida State Archives.
For a long time, the sugar farms of the Everglades Agricultural Area have returned polluted flood and irrigation water to Lake Okeechobee to prevent sugarcane from drowning. Excessive phosphorus from fertilizer and animal waste from the dairy, citrus, and ranching industries has also been carried by rainwater into rivers and swamps. Phosphorus-loving cattail appeared at the expense of the sawgrass, changing the underwater ecosystem and affecting animal habitats on land.
As early as the 1920s, private citizens called attention to the degradation of the Everglades. In 1929 botanist John K. Small’s From Eden to Sahara: Florida's Tragedy chronicled the “fast and furious” destruction of the Everglades and advised, “It is not too late to act.” Marjorie Stoneman Douglas agreed, and for many people, the identity of the Everglades is in her eloquent immortalization of the slow movement from north to south of a 35-mile-wide expanse of water across the vast landscape. Douglas’ classic book, The Everglades: River of Grass, was published in 1947, the same year Everglades National Park was dedicated, and 100 years after humans decided to “reclaim” the Everglades.
In 2000 the State of Florida and the federal government launched the historic multibillion-dollar Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), the largest initiative of its kind. The 2008 mandated biennial review of the plan by the National Research Council reported that only “scant progress” had been made and no projects had been completed, due to management issues. Continued decline of ecosystems, increasing costs and population, and a changing climate were named as challenges contributing to the urgency for Everglades restoration.
All the news is not bad. Programs and laws have been put into place. Some lands are even being returned to swamp to restore the delicate ecological balance of the Everglades. Portions of the Everglades, once seen as wasteland, are now on protected land, including several wetlands under the protection of the Palm Beach County Department of Environmental Resources Management. The Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge contains 221 square miles of the Everglades, where over 250 species of birds are known to visit each year.
Courtesy Florida State Archives
Despite the Everglades’ problems, in any season various fish are swimming in this fresh water, including bass, bream, speckled perch, and catfish. Depending on the season, white-tailed deer and ducks are plentiful enough to be hunted without much impact on the ecosystem. A reduction in the number of wild boars, an invasive species, would be a positive change. Just as Native Americans once did in canoes they made from cypress trees, many people find canoeing and kayaking to be the best ways to explore the Everglades and cypress swamps. Without propellers or motors, they barely disturb the ecosystem. The Florida Everglades can still be enjoyed responsibly in these and other ways.