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There's Trouble in Paradise
Robert H. Boyle
February 09, 1981
The channelized Kissimmee River, once a meandering stream that nourished a wide floodplain, symbolizes Florida's dilemma: too many people demanding too much of the state's fragile land and water systems
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February 09, 1981

There's Trouble In Paradise

The channelized Kissimmee River, once a meandering stream that nourished a wide floodplain, symbolizes Florida's dilemma: too many people demanding too much of the state's fragile land and water systems

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Florida sportsmen recently attacked Graham for siding with "the despoilers" in a "many-million-dollar drainage deal that benefits a precious few" in Hendry County. "With the exception of Warren Henderson, there never was a better environmental senator than Bob Graham." says Jones, "but as governor he has wandered away from us. I can't even get in to talk with him, and I run the biggest conservation organization in Florida. As a governor, he ain't got it. People say he has gotten more conservative, more right-wing, so he can run for President, and to do that he has to pacify those people who don't like environmentalists—the sugarcane league, agribusiness, the biggies. I'm a conservative, and to me that means conserving clean air and clean water as well as money."

The people and how they respond to their own increasing demands on the state's resources will determine what happens to Florida. David Pearson, a marketing consultant to developers of resort communities, was Graham's campaign manager. A member of the board of directors of the Florida Audubon Society, Pearson regards himself as an environmentalist. "Florida is the cutting edge for the rest of the country," he says. "All the problems we face here are simply problems that are waiting to exist in other places. We're under a magnifying glass." Indeed, ENFO, the newsletter of the Florida Conservation Foundation, considers the "basic cause of present national and world turmoil" to be the growing scarcity of natural resources. Reed also believes that "the great problem America faces is coming to terms with limited resources. We've been a nation of boomers, with Florida traditionally the biggest boomer state of all."

According to Reed, a board member of the South Florida Water Management District, which includes the Everglades system, the place to start undoing the damage is in the Glades. "The option is still open to repair that system," he says.

"Note the word repair, not restore," says Arthur R. Marshall, the author of just such a plan. "To restore the Everglades, I'd have to move 300,000 houses." A scientist who's widely regarded as having the best insight into Florida's ecological problems, Marshall, 61, embarked on his mission as an environmental evangelist in 1960, when he became the Florida administrator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. After a brief stint as a professor and the director of the division of applied ecology at the University of Miami and later as a professor at the University of Florida, he became a private consultant in 1974. Marshall preaches a regard for ecosystems, for how they function and for how mankind can use them to advantage. In 1962 he caused a furor by predicting the end of the million-dollar-a-year scallop fishery in Pine Island Sound off the west coast of southern Florida if Lee County built a causeway to Sanibel Island. The county attorney demanded, unsuccessfully, that the Fish and Wildlife Service transfer Marshall out of the state. The causeway was built, and in two years the scallop fishery had disappeared for good. "I hit that right on the nose because I was doing ecological-systems thinking," Marshall says. "The causeway retarded the outflow of fresh water and backed it up into Pine Island Sound. That reduced salinity levels below 20 parts per thousand, and that killed the scallop larvae. We don't have any agencies in state government that consider whole ecosystems, and that's a major problem. If we don't change our way of thinking, we're going to see the collapse of our systems and the resources they've provided."

Marshall has spent 20 years studying the Everglades, a system that doesn't originate within the national park boundaries, or even in Lake Okeechobee, but to the north near Orlando, in a chain of lakes in the upper Kissimmee River basin. "Historically, these lakes overflowed during the rainy season and sent a sheet flow of water over the mile-wide floodplain of the lower Kissimmee River," Marshall says. "That river should never have been channelized. Some of the water soaked into the shallow aquifer, while the rest ultimately spilled into Lake Okeechobee. Water then moved out of Okeechobee through six or seven streams running south from the lake into the great sawgrass country of the Everglades. This freshwater flow into Florida Bay, at the tip of the state, created the brackish estuarine conditions that shrimp and many fish need to thrive. But because of the reduced flow, the marine fisheries in Florida Bay are now under duress—guides are going broke—freshwater fish are threatened, some bird species are on the brink, the aquifer is absorbing less and less fresh water, and we're losing muck because the whole system has been diked and ditched. But it's still a single basin, and we can upgrade it, repair it. We can't take it back 150 years, but we can do a lot.

"I mentioned muck. Say the word muck to someone and they think you're out of your mind, but muck to me is the key to the Everglades. If we can generate muck, we're improving the system. The muck soils of the Everglades are 5,000 years old. Muck is created by decomposing vegetation, but this vegetation has to be saturated by flooding for seven or eight months. Anaerobic bacteria then convert the vegetation to muck. But when you cut off the flow of water to the Glades, the muck dries out, oxidizes and blows away. Right now we're not getting any new muck, and the agricultural area of the Everglades is losing old muck at the rate of an inch a year. This area of 1,200 square miles has already sunk six to seven feet. Underneath is hard limestone that rings like a bell. What will happen when that muck disappears? They'll sell the land for houses, which will only add to the problem. What I want to do is reflood the system."

Here's the Marshall Plan. He would raise the levels of the lakes on the upper Kissimmee to restore a gradual sheet flow into the floodplain below. During dry-season drawdowns, increased oxidation and wind would expose the dried-out bottoms of accumulated organics to the atmosphere. He would dechannelize the Kissimmee River, allowing it to meander over its old 100-mile course rather than through its current 50-mile chute. Thus, water would again flow over now-dry lands. "Ultimately many Floridians will evaluate this plan in terms of its worth to mankind," Marshall says. "Its value in three areas—muck for agricultural production, marine and freshwater fish for food, recharge of the Biscayne aquifer for water supply—is evident in our world of increasing needs and diminishing resources."

Meantime, other lands vital to the ecosystem are being saved. Huge tracts are being acquired. In fact, General Tire and Rubber announced in December that it would sell and donate a total of 78 square miles it owns in the East Everglades. Reed helped set in motion the acquisition of such tracts while at the Department of the Interior. Concerned about the impact that activities on adjacent lands could have on the Everglades National Park, he got the EPA to put up $1.2 million to fund the East Everglades Resources Planning Project, an endeavor that complements Marshall's plan.

The Federal Government is committed to buying additional wetlands in the Big Cypress Swamp, but locating the 40,000 people who own the property is going to be a chore. "The swamp peddlers sold the land mainly to buyers in Central and South America," Reed says. And thanks to the persistent urging of Rod Chandler, a warden for the National Audubon Society, the society has bought more than 6,000 acres of the old Kissimmee floodplain as a wet prairie sanctuary.

Money and legislative acts can go a long way toward resolving some problems. Others, not manmade, can never be totally controlled. Lethal yellowing, a bacteria-like plant disease, has destroyed 95% of the coconut palm trees, long the very symbol of Florida, in Dade County and is fast spreading.

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