American Wetlands Month in Review: Trouble for the Everglades

This May marks the 25th anniversary of American Wetlands Month – an opportunity to celebrate the critical ecological and economic importance of wetlands for the country. Wetlands improve water quality, serve as a first line of defense against flooding, and provide important habitat for countless species of fish and wildlife.

Unfortunately, Wetlands Month this year brought some bad news for one of the largest and most productive wetland systems in the world – the Florida Everglades.

everglades mape
Changes in the drainage of the Everglades as a result of development in South Florida. Photo from NASA
Historically part of a unique ecosystem stretching from Orlando to the southern tip of Florida via the Kissimmee River and overflow from Lake Okeechobee, the original Everglades encompassed approximately 4,000 square miles. It consisted of a vast wetland of slow-moving freshwater which flowed into Florida Bay. In the 20th century, extensive landscape modifications – including the construction of the Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee, the conversion of much of the Everglades’ habitat to sugar farming and urban sprawl, and the channelization of the Kissimmee River – all reduced the Everglades to less than half its historic size and dramatically altered the way the water moved through the landscape.

Great Egret
Great Egret, Ardea alba. Photo by Rodney Cammauf, National Park Service
Beginning in the 1940s, efforts were made to set aside and protect portions of the Everglades system, including Everglades National Park and Big Cypress National Preserve. In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which aims to restore more natural flow patterns and the improve water quality in the Everglades system. Importantly, 8 million in Southeast Florida rely on it for their drinking water.

While meaningful progress has been made in recent years, fundamental obstacles remain. Water that once naturally overflowed from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades is now caught in the lake by the dam. In times of high water, the US Army Corps of Engineers releases millions of gallons east and west of the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. This water is polluted by runoff from farming and urban areas north of the lake. The result is that the sudden release of large volumes of polluted water causes significant damage in the rivers and their estuaries where they flow into the Gulf and the Atlantic.

Tricolored heron in the rain
Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest entrant Scott Helfrich.
Area residents have long advocated for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. Here excess polluted water could be stored, cleaned, and then sent south to the Everglades, where the water once naturally flowed.

Several years ago, Governor Charlie Crist executed an option agreement on land owned by U.S. Sugar, a large agricultural company that owns a strategically-placed property that would have been the perfect location for the reservoir. Unfortunately, earlier this month the South Florida Water Management District, which would have purchased the land, voted to kill the deal, citing lease restrictions and cost concerns.

However, this transaction was among the purchases that Floridians had in mind last November when 75% of voters approved Amendment 1, dedicating funding for land acquisition, habitat restoration, and water protection across the state.

Although the amendment clearly calls for funding an existing acquisition and restoration program known as Florida Forever, both the Florida Senate and House approved only a small amount of money for this program, signaling that they intend to utilize some of the Amendment 1 funding for unrelated spending.

florida wetlands
Sunrise over wetlands in Florida. Photo donated by National Wildlife Photo Contest by Jonathan Burket
With Amendment 1 funding in jeopardy, and with no concrete alternatives to the failed U.S. Sugar land purchase, this Wetlands Month has been a bleak one for the Everglades. Still, it’s not all bad news – a diverse and determined set of stakeholders continue working to save this unique ecosystem for the benefit of people and wildlife alike. It’s an important time for wetland advocates around the nation to tune in and look south, to help make restoration a reality for the treasured American Everglades.

Help NWF continue our wetland conservation efforts to restore the American Everglades.


Preston Robertson, Vice President of Florida Wildlife Federation, co-authored this post.

| , ,
Published: May 29, 2015