What's Wrong With The River of Grass?
"The Everglades is a test. If we pass it, we may get to keep the planet."
- Marjory Stoneman Douglas, "Mother of the Everglades," author, activist
When most people think about the Florida Everglades, the last thing they probably think about is Disney World, EPCOT, and Universal Studios. But the reality is, just south and east of these world-famous Orlando theme parks, there is a little-known waterway called Shingle Creek winding its way behind such luxurious resorts as the Ritz Carlton, the Rosen, and JW Marriott. Surprisingly enough, this is where the water story begins –– this is where Everglades begins. And unfortunately, where the problems begin, too.
Orlando receives an average of more than 50 inches of rain a year and about 117 total rain days. All of that water has to go somewhere and Shingle Creek, located in the heart of Orlando, sees much of that rainfall enter its banks as urban run-off. Just imagine all the oily, grimy, semi-toxic stuff that makes its way onto the streets of Orlando and eventually into Shingle Creek. This water is contaminated from the start.
Photo: Google Maps - Shingle Creek Trailhead, Headwaters of the Everglades, Orlando, Florida
Photo: Shingle Creek empties into Lake Tohopekaliga, Kissimmee, Florida
The water that began in Shingle Creek flows south into the north end of Lake Tohopekaliga and then makes its way about 30 miles further south through Lake Cypress, then Lake Hatchineha, and finally into Lake Kissimmee where it reaches the start of the Kissimmee River.
The Kissimmee River was historically a slow, meandering river with an extensive floodplain that allowed its waters to overflow the banks during times of heavy rain. Countless fish, animals, and wading and migratory birds depended on this flooding for their habitat and survival.
Photo: South Florida Water Management District
As Central Florida grew through the 40s and 50s, flooding became a problem in the area's new communities. And as a result, in the 1960s, the Kissimmee River was channelized, deepened, and widened (to become the C-38 canal), which solved the flooding problems but essentially destroyed the floodplain habitat. Many of the species that called it home were lost.
This channeling also depleted the waters' oxygen levels, which changed the fish community drastically. Runoff from agriculture along its banks continues to be a significant problem for the Kissimmee River to this day.
Photo: South Florida Water Management District
However, in recent years, a number of projects have been approved to return some of the original 103 miles of the river to its natural floodplain state. The Kissimmee River Restoration Project, which is the largest river restoration project in the world, began in 1999 with the backfilling of 8 miles of the C-38 canal and the rerouting of the water back to its meandering state. That was just the start.
Photo: South Florida Water Management District
By 2020, as many as 44 miles of the river will have been restored to allow for a Kissimmee River that more resembles its historic path. However, much of the C-38 canal remains and the Kissimmee River is still a major conduit for water pollution making its way south to the next stop on the waters' journey, Lake Okeechobee.
Photo: Google Maps, Kissimmee River enters the north end of Lake Okeechobee at the Herbert Hoover Dike
In the Seminole or Hitchiti Indian languages, Okeechobee means "big water," and that's exactly what Lake Okeechobee is. Besides Lake Michigan in the Great Lakes Chain, Lake Okeechobee is the largest freshwater lake wholly contained inside the continental United States. It is the beating heart of the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades biosphere and a critical component of the health of the entire system.
Historically, the lake was also prone to the wide-spread overflow of its banks when heavy rains fell and water flow leaving the south end of Lake Okeechobee made it's way unimpeded to the southern end of the Florida peninsula and the start of the what is often referred to as "The River of Grass" –– the most well-known part of the Everglades system. Even Native Americans called it Pahayokee, or "grassy water."
As a way to control this flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a project in 1932 that was finally completed in the 1960s which built a 143-mile earthen levee around the entirety of Lake Okeechobee. This project, known as the Herbert Hoover Dike, essentially and effectively changed the water flow to the Everglades forever. The water was now under the full control of man and the slowly evolving disaster that we are now experiencing was set into motion.
Photo: Herbert Hoover Dike, Lake Okeechobee, Florida
Photo: Port Mayaca Locks on the Herbert Hoover Dike, East side of Lake Okeechobee, Florida
Because of the lack of constant water flow out of the south end of the lake, Okeechobee has become relatively stagnant compared to its historic past. It's now a repository for polluted sediment and water from the Kissimmee River and other local watersheds that surround it. The deposition of this water, full of excess nutrients from agriculture and runoff, is one component that has led to massive toxic algae blooms in the lake. In the past couple of years, this explosion of algae has made national and even international news.
When lake levels get "too high," which in and of itself is a very loose term, the water, laden with the toxic blooms, is released en mass to critical estuaries on both the east and west coasts of Florida with devastating impacts.
Photo: Algae Bloom on Lake Okeechobee, Florida
Photo: Everglades Foundation, Historical vs. Current Everglades Water Flow Chart
At this point, the water that is not gobbled up by agriculture or Florida's ever-increasing population (1 in 3 people in Florida get their drinking water from this system) is a fraction of the historical flow and the lack of water making its way to the Everglades is having a serious impact on the quality of the ecosystem. Not only is the amount of water a problem, but the quality of the water is also highly suspect.
For more than a hundred years, the "natural plumbing" in the southern end of Florida has been dredged, diked, and drained to make way for human development of all kinds. The original size of the Everglades has essentially been cut in half since then. The loss of this habitat emperils not only the 70 known threatened and endangered species that call it home but the population of humans that have migrated to this tropical paradise as well.
The River of Grass sits atop a porous substrate of limestone that essentially looks like swiss cheese. The water that flows into the Everglades recharges the Biscayne Aquifer, which provides drinking water to over 8 million people along the coast as well as the millions of tourists that flock to the area each year to experience the best that Florida has to offer. If we lose the Everglades, we lose the cities and populations that have helped sustain Florida for all these years as well as the economic tourism engine that injects billions of dollars a year into the state's coffers.
Photo: Everglades Foundation Senior Ecologist Steve Davis, Ph.D. shows the limestone rock that makes up Florida's aquifer which provides water to millions
Photo: The River of Grass, Florida Everglades, Southeast Florida
Once the water has passed over and through The River of Grass, it begins the final leg of its journey. At the very southern tip of Florida the freshwater, which may have taken more than a year to flow from Shingle Creek, begins to mix with the saltwater of Florida Bay to create one of the most unique and precious estuaries in the entire world. Here sawgrass and cypress trees give way to mangrove forests and the nature of life changes from the freshwater to the marine environment.
The tangled roots of those mangrove trees are the perfect habitat for juvenile fish to shelter and feed. Their branches are where many of the region's birds make their nests. These same mangrove trees also act as a huge carbon sink and protect the Florida peninsula from dangerous storm surges that hurricanes bring.
Photo: Mangrove Forest in Everglades National Park, Florida
Down in this part of the state, it's a simple case of water pressure. With the reduction in water flow from the north, the freshwater-saltwater transition zone has moved inland by at least a kilometer and once brackish waters are now saltwater which is causing an imbalance in the ecosystem.
The rise in salinity has a negative effect on the plant community in the area, particularly on the ever-important seagrass beds that act as a nursery and forage for many of the species that call Florida Bay home. Another plant affected is the hardy sawgrass. When saltwater moves through the porous limestone rock and touches the roots of the grass it dies off. In both cases, natural habitat is destroyed, which affects all the life that depends on in it for survival. This saltwater intrusion, as its called, could have serious consequences for the drinking water in the region as well.
This is the only ecosystem in the world were alligators and crocodiles exist together in the natural environment. Manatees, sea turtles, game fish, and dolphins all call this area home. The richness and diversity of wildlife in this region have been documented for generations and are internationally renowned. But now it's on the verge of collapse and only a fast and drastic response will be able to save and restore the Everglades. Luckily, the winds of change are blowing and there is hope for this ecosystem.
Photo: American Alligator and American Crocodile co-exist in the Everglades
In the year 2000, the U.S. Congress authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) with the goal to "restore, preserve, and protect the south Florida ecosystem while providing for other water-related needs of the region, including water supply and flood protection." However, in the last 19 years, there has been very little movement on over 60 projects that were slated to begin and finish as part of the CERP. Lack of political will, lobbying by special interests, and the general sense that the next person will do the work has led to the dire situation the Everglades is in now.
Thankfully, there is a realization that we can no longer kick the can down the road because if we do, the Everglades may be lost forever. Political leaders are now finally beginning to take notice of how valuable this entire ecosystem is to the state of Florida. And our partner, Captains For Clean Water, is helping to lead the charge for Everglades restoration in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C. so we can move the needle forward on the man-made water crisis in the Everglades system.
This past legislative session, Captains For Clean Water were instrumental in pushing lawmakers to allocate the largest amount of funding ever for Everglades restoration at both the state and federal levels. Their involvement in the process has given the people of Florida, and the world for that matter, a real chance at seeing a restored Everglades in our lifetime.
Captains For Clean Water is educating the masses on the issues facing Florida's estuaries and Everglades, uniting stakeholders by finding common ground to fight for clean water and advocating for long-term, science-based solutions to the man-made water crisis in South Florida. If you want to become part of their mission and donate to them directly, you can do so here.
As part of our partnership, 4ocean has released the Everglades Bracelet. Purchasing this bracelet funds the removal of one pound of trash from the ocean and coastlines while helping raise awareness about the threats facing this unique ecosystem and the need for immediate action to protect and preserve it for future generations. Show your support for the Everglades by purchasing your bracelet today!
Have you ever been to the Everglades? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments section below.
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