The problem is fresh, clean water. There's not enough of it moving down the peninsula. Getting more will require prompt, stouthearted action, for which Florida's lawmakers are not famous.
When nature controlled the plumbing, good water ran south in a sheet from Lake Okeechobee through the Everglades, finally emptying from Shark River and Taylor Slough into the brackish estuary called Florida Bay. It was a perfect system, except that it did not anticipate the demands of reckless, unchecked urban growth. As Fort Lauderdale and Miami boomed in the '40s, the Army Corps of Engineers built 1,400 miles of levees and canals. Pump houses were installed to prevent flooding of farms and newly developed subdivisions (real estate brokers still being somewhat sensitive about their image as tawdry swamp peddlers).
In the ravenous euphoria of a land stampede, no thought was given to the possible adverse effects of gouging deep trenches across Florida's wetlands. For engineers the mission was a simple one: Move the water.
Now the federal government and the state of Florida are spending millions trying to fix the mess. In theory the restoration plan would mimic the ancient pattern of Everglades drainage while reducing pathogenic levels of mercury, nitrogen, phosphorus and pesticides. But in fact there's still no official commitment to replenish the total annual volume of freshwater once sent to Florida Bay. Without that, many scientists say, the backcountry will never recover.
So much water has been purloined for urbanization that the bay today receives about one tenth of its historic flow. In the 1980s successive seasons of brutal drought and exceptionally high temperatures conspired with dumb flood-control practices to hasten the crash. No longer brackish, the bay was becoming a hot, briny lagoon—in some places, twice as salty as seawater.
Most experts think huge algae blooms in the backcountry are related, at least indirectly, to the ultrahigh salinity. They believe too much salt in the water can kill sea grasses, triggering a cycle of decay. Dead grass loads the water with nutrients, which in turn gorge the plankton. As the algal mass spreads, it damages more grasses in its path. "Thus a positive growth loop, similar to a cancer cell's, is born," explains Dr. Joseph Zieman, a University of Virginia scientist who has studied Florida Bay extensively.
A minority view is that the blooms are caused by phosphates and other waste swept into the bay from distant cities and farms. Whatever the cause, the effect is arresting. Although the phytoplankton isn't toxic to sea life, it blocks sunlight essential to the habitat of larval lobsters, shellfish, corals and sponges. The onset of the algae was followed by a drastic slump in the Gulf of Mexico's pink-shrimp harvest.
By 1992 the bloom was so prolific that a 450-square-mile area of the bay had been dubbed the Dead Zone. Mark Butler, a biologist at Old Dominion University in Virginia, was conducting a field study of spiny lobsters when a 100-square-mile blanket of algae settled for three months around the Arsnicker Keys. Underwater visibility dropped from 25 feet to six inches.
In a letter to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Butler wrote, "When the bloom finally dissipated, we were awed at the devastation.... Over 90 percent of the sponges at our study site were either killed or severely damaged."
I was out in the bay on a day when it was happening. With the plankton clogging their membranes, sponges were dying by the hundreds and floating off the bottom. The surface became a bobbing gantlet of brown, decaying clumps of sponge; the water was greenish and grungy. The sight put a knot in my gut.