That's why it is imperative that a natural flow be restored as soon as possible, while the political will and funds exist to do it. The engineering isn't as daunting as the politics. Powerful special-interest groups are demanding a say in where the lifeblood of the Everglades goes, how much they get to keep and what they're allowed to dump in the water on its way downstream.
The battle begins up at Lake Okeechobee, where Big Sugar finally (and reluctantly) has agreed to filter phosphates from the runoff of the cane fields. Farther south, the cities siphon heavily from the diked "conservation areas"—cheap, accessible reservoirs that help fuel the breakneck westward growth in Palm Beach, Broward and Dade counties. Even below Miami, on Florida's still rural southern tip, water policy is disproportionately influenced by private interests. In the dry months what would otherwise trickle through the glades to the bay is diverted instead to a small cluster of tomato and avocado farms. Conversely, in the wet season the surplus water is pumped off the fields to protect the crops. The canal network was absurdly designed to flush millions of gallons not into the Everglades (which were made to absorb them) but into Manatee Bay and Barnes Sound, which are saltwater bodies. The effect of such a copious, sudden injection of freshwater is an overdose—lethal on an impressive scale to fish, corals and other marine life.
But it's all for a good cause. Upstream the avocados are plump and safe.
During all my days in the Keys, I met Ted Williams only once. It was several years ago, at a gas station in Islamorada.
He noticed my skiff on the trailer and stalked up to inquire about the bonefishing. Understand that Williams's reputation in the backcountry was as fearsome as it was at the ballpark, so I was a jumble of nerves. But he was as pleasant as anyone could be. We talked about the tides, the wind, where the fish were feeding. Then he got in his station wagon and said goodbye. It wasn't so long afterward that he sold his place and moved away.
I understand why he left, but I wish he hadn't. His unshy temperament would have made him a valuable ally in this battle for Florida Bay: a glaring, impatient presence before county commissions, water boards and legislative committees.
Fortunately the Keys have other fiery defenders. One is Mike Collins, who spends almost as much time haggling in the back rooms of Tallahassee as he does poling the back-country. Twenty years ago Collins fled Wall Street to become a fishing guide in Florida, the sort of madcap impulse of which urban daydreams and Jimmy Buffett lyrics are made. Changing latitudes, I'm happy to report, did not transform Collins into a laid-back guy. He has been a tenacious and refreshingly blunt-spoken advocate for Florida Bay. So, given the many exasperating obstacles to saving the place, I was mildly surprised to hear Collins say, "I'm pretty optimistic. There's enough will to get it done. And there are some very good people working on it."
We were in his 19-foot skiff, tearing a frothy seam across a glass-calm morning, when he stopped to explore a redfish bank near Buoy Key. The scene was disheartening. Only months earlier the bottom had been lush and green. Now there were silty craters where the turtle grass had died. Leaning hard on the push pole, Collins agreed: It looked bad. But it could bounce back, he said. With a little luck and a little help.
You'll hear this over and over from those who spend their lives in these waters—a firm, almost spiritual confidence in the recuperative powers of nature. "What this does," Collins said of the big rains, "is buy us some time." But he, too, worries that budget cutters might pull the plug on the Everglades, murdering it once and for all. For Collins, who happens to be a Republican, saving Florida Bay isn't an ideological choice, it's a moral one. There is simply no honorable argument against it.
"Look, I've been all over the hemisphere looking for someplace else that compares—the Bahamas, Belize, you name it," he says. "But I always end up back here in the Keys, doing battle with these birdbrained bureaucrats. You've got to fight for it, because there is no place else that comes close."