Anhinga Trail's once clear waters, now a mass of soupy mud as a result of the
interminable drought that is devastating south Florida, an alligator caught a
garfish (above) and fought to preserve it from the hungry jaws of scavenging
turtles. Such scenes were frequent last week throughout the Everglades National
Park, famed for its subtropical wildlife, as animals crept to dwindling water
holes in a desperate struggle for survival. The great ibis and heron rookeries
were bare. Instead of nesting, the birds fled in thousands to Cuba and other
nearby Caribbean islands. What mammals that were left starved and fresh-water
bass choked as ocean salt water pushed up rivers. Finally—what the Park Service
had dreaded most—the fires came, bringing with them destruction and a dense
black cloud so big it almost forced postponement of Astronaut Scott Carpenter's
lift-off at Cape Canaveral, 200 miles away.
How the Drought
grass fires have long occurred periodically in the vast sweep of the
Everglades. But since a series of drainage projects was first started (in
1847), the droughts, not surprisingly, have increased in destructiveness. As a
result, National Park Service experts feel that, deprived of the conditions
that made them, the wildlife and vegetation features of Everglades National
Park will inevitably atrophy and possibly some day even disappear.
The wellspring of
life in the Everglades is the 730-square-mile Lake Okeechobee. There was a time
when waters from the north flowed into Okeechobee, which in turn overflowed its
banks and fed the huge, flat swamp area to the south. When man began draining
the region below the lake, he created rich agricultural lands—and problems. In
1928 one of Florida's most destructive hurricanes blew the water out of
Okeechobee, inundating surrounding farm country and killing 2,400 people. To
prevent a recurrence, dikes were built around the lake and the excess water was
diverted through canals and rivers to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of
Mexico. There is some evidence that this may have caused a climatic change in
the area. Whether true or not, a succession of droughts and floods ensued,
culminating in 1947, when winds and rain flooded 3 million acres and caused
damage to crops and cities estimated at $59 million.
At this point the
Army Corps of Engineers entered the picture with an imaginative project
embracing a network of dikes, canals, pumping stations and impoundments.
Costing $334 million, it is designed to prevent floods, store water for
distribution in time of need and, hopefully, supply water to the Everglades
National Park. It still is unfinished, but park men are beginning to doubt that
the project will help much, anyway. The engineers themselves say that because
of the unexpected population growth in south Florida the demands for human
consumption, agriculture and industry will be so great that the park will get
extra water only in times of superabundance. That will hardly solve the
Everglades' long-range problem.
What the Fire Has
Probably started by a match or cigarette tossed from a car on the Tamiami
Trail, fire fanned by 25-mile-an-hour winds roared out across the Everglades.
Too fast and hot to be controlled, it soon became apparent that this was more
than the usual dry-season grass fire common to south Florida. Because of the
severity of the drought, even the peaty soil burned. By the third day flames
had swept into Everglades National Park, and visitors to the overlook tower at
Pahayokee saw the Seminole Indians' "river of grass" turn into a flood
of fire. Using ground crews and planes with chemicals, fire fighters conceded
the vast middle area of the Everglades and battled to save the park's main
tourist and scientific attractions. A few showers fell on the 10th day, some of
them putting out fingers of the fire, but already more than 162,000 acres had
burned over, 60,000 of them in the park, and anxious officials scanned weather
reports for signs that the overdue rainy season would soon begin. The heavy
rains never came last year, and if the fires should continue now the U.S.
surely would lose one of its great scenic wonders.
cure and the damage
A cure for south Florida's continuing trouble with droughts and floods, which
are threatening the Everglades and have already cost millions of dollars and
many lives, is being sought in a massive undertaking by the Army Corps of
Engineers. It is that organization's biggest earth-moving job since it finished
digging the Panama Canal in 1914. Map at top shows how floodwaters channeled
from Lake Okeechobee will be collected in three large impoundments divided by
dikes (Conservation Area) when the project is completed in a few years. From
these shallow lakes, water will be drawn to recharge subsurface water for east
coast cities and to supply agricultural and industrial needs. It is also hoped
that enough water will collect in the lower impoundment to be passed under the
Tamiami Trail into Everglades National Park. The extent of burned-over land in
the park's present great fire, still burning on Monday despite a two-week
battle to contain it, is shown in the lower map.
drought conditions in Everglades National Park is presented by water gauge in
slough at Anhinga Trail. Where fish swim and birds feed in normal times, there
is now only mud scarred by the tracks of alligators. Last week the water table
in the vicinity of the park headquarters had dropped to 2.18 feet below sea
level, lowest in the park records.
A mother and baby
alligator were among hundreds that congregated in a canal and moat near Seven
Mile Tower in the northern section of the park a fortnight ago when an isolated
shower raised the water level. Last week fires burned on three sides of the
oasis, but fire fighters successfully brought the flames under control to
preserve the remaining wildlife.