Stanley C. Joseph, the short, round-faced superintendent of Everglades National Park, stood by a window in his office, gazing toward a nearby pond that was so low it resembled a desert water hole. He stares at that pond frequently these days, for it is a gauge of his worst anxiety. "If we don't get water," he said, "it will mean the end of the park as we know it today."
Oddly enough, Joseph was not complaining about lack of rainfall in the park, although that has compounded his woes. He was referring to one of the strangest conservation struggles in the nation—the effort of the Everglades National Park to get its share of the natural drainage water of south Florida. Between Lake Okeechobee and the park the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is completing one of the biggest flood-control and water-distribution projects of its kind in the world. Out of it, because of the water-release schedule, the park has gotten only a trickle.
As Joseph looked at the shrunken pond he could have repeated what experts in many fields have been saying: 1) lack of fresh water moving through the Everglades from the north could mean the end of the park's fine sport fishing for snook, redfish and other species; 2) it could mean the impairment or possible loss of the commercial fishing for sea trout and stone crab in Florida Bay; 3) it could do great harm to the shrimp industry at the Dry Tortugas shrimping grounds 100 miles away. Scientists have recently informed Joseph that each one of those millions of shrimp harvested at Dry Tortugas passes part of its life in Everglades National Park.
Since Joseph was given the task of solving the Everglades' water problem, he has pushed scientific studies of the area's ecology to prove the park's need for fresh water. Armed with these studies, he has pleaded the park's case to the Army engineers and the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District. The latter administers the gargantuan complex of canals, dikes, impoundments and pumping stations. So far, alarmingly little has been pumped the park's way, despite an agreement for an interim flow of water, pending eventual settlement of the problem.
When the time for the release came, one of the gates just north of the park was opened an inch, and for a week water flowed into the park at the rate of 10 cubic feet per second. The parched land absorbed this ridiculously small amount in no time. "It was like spitting out the window," a member of the park staff said.
Ed Dail, executive director of the Flood Control District, explains that the giant system cannot deliver water to the park without hurting the farmers in the big vegetable-and sugar-growing area south of Lake Okeechobee. Dail says that under the present system, of every 20 gallons of water pumped into the park 12 would be drawn off the farmers' land.
Park officials argue that the water-release scheduling was inadequate in any case. They claim that at the same time the park was getting its 10 cubic feet per second this spring another 1,000 cubic feet per second was being dumped into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean through canals and rivers. This dumping is done to lower the level of Lake Okeechobee and lessen flood danger before the rains come this month.
One thing seems obvious: whatever the original intention, the $381 million system, as it now functions, is not helping the park. Meanwhile the Corps of Engineers, operating on a $205,000 appropriation from Congress, has been making a study of the situation. The corps is still three years away from reaching a solution. More money must be appropriated for further study.
That Florida should have a water problem is a mystery to outsiders. It is a mystery to most insiders, too. Water once overflowed from Lake Okeechobee to spread out over the Everglades in a vast, moving sheet that formed the all-important brackish zone along the coast.
This sheet of shallow water moving across the southernmost tip of the U.S. mainland became the life stream of a host of natural wonders ranging from shrimp to sea cows, from snow-white egrets to flaming-pink roseate spoonbills, from gaily colored tree snails to alligators and from an endless sweep of tough saw grass to dainty wild orchids, which festoon massive mahogany trees.