SI Vault
John O'Reilly
August 15, 1966
It was as though someone had mercifully pushed the right button on the great flood-control complex and the drought-ridden Everglades were saved. But the rain, in solving one problem, only created another
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August 15, 1966

For 60 Days And 60 Nights

It was as though someone had mercifully pushed the right button on the great flood-control complex and the drought-ridden Everglades were saved. But the rain, in solving one problem, only created another

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Not so long ago (SI, June 7, 1965) rangers in Everglades National Park were trussing up alligators and looking for water holes in which to dump the big reptiles in order to keep them from frying in the drought. Now, just across the Tamiami Trail from the park, the section called Conservation Area No. 3 is nothing less than one huge water hole, and state game department men are trussing up deer and carting them to higher ground to keep them from drowning. The current plight of the deer herd (which before recent floods numbered 6,000 but has now been depleted by 1,000) following so closely the previous alligator emergency typifies the consequences of man's efforts to tame the Everglades. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on dikes, canals, pumps and floodgates, but it is obvious that the flood-control effort has been made without the foresight necessary to prevent such dissimilar yet related tragedies.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, planner of the Rube Goldberg maze which the Everglades has become, is drawing off water as fast as it can to reduce the level in Area No. 3, but it is a slow process. Men of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, augmented by volunteer members of hunting clubs, are working long hours to get out what deer they can. But this, too, is a slow process, and it is feared more animals will be lost than saved. Airplanes, helicopters and airboats have been pressed into rescue service. Men in the air spot the deer and radio their whereabouts to the water crews, who go after them in the airboats. The whole process resembles some weird rodeo with aquatic wranglers in the roaring airboats bearing down on the deer with ready ropes.

The animals slog around in water that reaches three feet in depth, attempting to feed on the few projecting bushes. Then they seek dry hummocks of ground, where they huddle until hunger sends them back for a swim. Those in the airboats overtake the deer and haul them aboard. Up to five animals are carried in one load, and they are released on dry ground outside the flooded area. As of last Saturday just over 200 deer had been taken out, but the rate of rescue was increasing as more men were put on the job.

This battle to save the deer is in direct contrast to the one fought so recently to protect other park animals. During four years of recurring drought, park personnel struggled to save not only alligators, but the birds, fish, shrimp and the plants and trees. There were grim scenes during those years, with animals writhing in soupy mud as they sought to devour each other. The earth cracked where water once stood several feet deep, and smoke-laden skies glowed red from the marching fires. The situation became aggravated in 1962 when, along the Tamiami Trail, the engineers closed the big gates they had installed as part of the vast flood-control complex.

A blow to the park, it was a boon to Area No. 3 on the other side. Some water came down through the system to create a perfect habitat for the deer, and the herd prospered. Water areas were festooned with lily pads, and stretches of higher ground provided browse. It was an ideal preserve, sheltered by miles and miles of dikes. But it had not been designed for that purpose—its primary use was as a flood-control basin—and the word Conservation in the title Conservation Area No. 3 originally had meant conservation of water, not deer. The deer were merely squatters.

As the drought worsened, the National Park Service carried its fight to Washington, demanding, begging, arguing that the park should get its share of water from the giant flood-control system. Finally Congress authorized another study, a reevaluation of the project in relation to the water needs of the park. That study is due to be completed late next year, but even as it got under way, interim releases of some water into the park were arranged. These releases helped, but they were far less than the amounts that traditionally had flowed across the flat land.

Then the rains came. This year, in the months of June and July, 33 inches of rain fell on Everglades National Park. Similar amounts were falling over most of the area embraced by the Central and South Florida Flood Control District. Intermittent showers kept up for 60 days and 60 nights. The water in the various storage basins, including Area No. 3, began to rise, and 700 square miles of cropland south of Lake Okeechobee were deluged.

The engineers are now desperately getting rid of water as fast as they can. The amounts being flung out of the system by one means or another are staggering. Water is being run down the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf of Mexico and through many canals to the Atlantic. The gates have been opened along the Tamiami Trail, and pouring through them is a steady flow of water such as the park people have only dreamed about. On July 28 a geological survey, an impartial study, found that 4,000 cubic feet of water a second—2,610,000,000 gallons a day—was moving into the park, enough to supply Miami for almost a month.

This bonanza, added to the amounts falling from the sky, caused a vast sheet of water to spread out over the park lands as it did in the days before man began draining the Everglades. It moved into the wide mangrove swamps, down the rivers and into Florida Bay, where it reddened the salt water with pigment it had picked up from the mangroves.

Across Florida Bay, on Key Largo, A. J. Mills, veteran shrimper who has caught bait shrimp for thousands of fishermen, grinned when he heard that the "red water" was moving out of the Everglades into the bay. "That means we'll have a good run of shrimp next winter," he said. Biologists have found that this brackish water zone around the fringes of the Everglades is 1,000 times richer than either salt water or fresh water. It is this brackish zone and its abundant food chain that makes Florida Bay the rich fishing ground that it is.

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