A few days later I travel to the source: Taylor River, a tributary of the aortal slough through which the Everglades delivers essential freshwater to the eastern bay. At the boat's helm is Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida scientist who has spent 18 years with endangered crocodiles along the back-country's most remote coves and beaches. It has been a banner season for the crocs, Mazzotti reports, and a good year for most wildlife, thanks to the rains—which could end tomorrow, or next fall, or five years from now. Another drought is inevitable; the only uncertainties are when it will come and how long will it last.
Mazzotti is no less ardent than Collins, but he's a bit more diplomatic. "It's not that we've killed Florida Bay, though we're damn close," he says. "It's that we've compromised its resilience."
For today, there's water enough to navigate Taylor River, which at its mouth is but a jungly creek—overgrown, slender as a mine shaft, mosquito-choked, strung with ornate, dewy spiderwebs. A whispering current, southbound and strong, puckers around the mangrove roots. Reaching over the gunwale, I touch two fingers to the surface, then to my mouth. No trace of salt.
The water is warm, absolutely fresh. It tastes like hope.