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AND NOW COME THE FLOODS
The last time we looked at the weather in south Florida, the problem was chronic drought, a consequence of land development and drainage of wetlands that have disrupted the normal summer rain cycle (SI, March 15, 1982). Now the same area is being devastated by floods from a record winter rainfall. And, paradoxically, the flooding has been exacerbated by the same abusive land and water practices that had contributed to the drought.
The key to the paradox is the Kissimmee River, which until the 1960s meandered southward for 100 miles before flowing into Lake Okeechobee north of the Everglades. But then the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers channelized the Kissimmee, reducing its length to 50 miles and destroying much of its floodplain. As a result, there was less water in the area, less evaporation and transpiration—and less rain during the summer wet season. Furthermore, without the floodplain to absorb water or the river's winding course to slow runoff", the danger of flooding was increased on those occasions when heavy rain did fall. And as of last week the man-made channel was funneling so much water into Lake Okeechobee that the lake was rising faster than the Corps could lower it. Water in the diked lake rose at one point during the week to an alarming 18'2" above sea level. The Corps is hoping to get the level down to the regulation standard of 15'6" by June 1, the start of the hurricane season; the fear is that the combination of high water and high winds could play havoc with the lake's levees, endangering property and human life in surrounding areas.
The Corps has been releasing all the water it can to the Caloosahatchee River to the west and the St. Lucie Canal to the east. In the interest of sparing the area's $1 billion-a-year sugarcane crop, it has also diverted floodwaters from the nearby cane fields to the Everglades farther to the south. Fresh water roaring through the St. Lucie Canal has pushed out into the Atlantic and can be detected more than seven miles offshore. Florida's coastal barrier reef will probably suffer substantial damage in some places because of the resulting sudden decrease in salinity. The floodwaters are also carrying decomposed peat sediment into the St. Lucie estuary. "Because of the fresh water and the accumulation of peat, plants and organisms like clams will be wiped out," says Arthur Marshall, an ecologist who has been accurate in the past in pinpointing Florida's numerous environmental ills and what should be done to correct them. "Fish will be driven out. They'll return, but there will be nothing for them to eat."
Conditions are even worse in Everglades National Park, whose population of wading birds has declined disastrously over the past quarter century because of a loss of habitat caused in part by erratic water flow that inundated parts of the park even while other areas were parched. Now the Corps is releasing 2.2 billion gallons of water a day into the park, further jeopardizing birds like the wood stork, a threatened species that feeds on fish and other food concentrated in shallow pools and had been suffering the effects of excessive water even before the floods. There are 15-year-old wood storks that have successfully nested only twice in their lives because of the difficulty of getting food. The flooding could also imperil the upcoming nesting season of the ground-nesting Cape Sable sparrow, an endangered species.
Other birds likely to suffer reproductive failure because of the floods include the white ibis, glossy ibis, great blue heron, little blue heron, Louisiana heron, green heron, snowy egret, American egret and roseate spoonbill. Johnny Jones, executive director of the Florida Wildlife Federation, says bluntly, "The Everglades and its wildlife are being sacrificed to benefit the giant sugarcane corporations in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee." Nathaniel P. Reed, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and National Parks in the Nixon and Ford administrations, calls the situation "a major natural and man-made tragedy."
Reed is right in indicting nature as well as man. The record rain has been caused in part by the so-called Southern Oscillation, a change in atmospheric circulation on a global scale (it's also largely responsible for the storms that have battered Southern California) prompted by a shift in recent months of warm water from the western to eastern Pacific Ocean. But the channelization of the Kissimmee River has made matters even worse. This lends urgency to a law passed by the Florida legislature in 1976 to restore the river basin. Although the Corps of Engineers was supposed to come up with a restoration plan, it has instead been sitting on its bureaucratic backside as beleaguered south Florida has battled first the drought and now the deluge.
KEEPING AHEAD OF INFLATION
AH, THE JOYS OF RECRUITING
This week's far-beyond-the-call-of-duty-while-recruiting award goes to University of Washington Assistant Football Coach Trent Walters for his dedication in trying to land Linebacker Larry Fitzgerald of Manual Arts High in L.A. Here's the story as recounted by Walters at a recent sportswriters' luncheon: