Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Getting to Know the Everglades, Part II - Drain It!

Map by Florida Division of Forestry
It's December. Rain and snow are descending upon much of the United States.  And yet the bulk of Florida - notably - the flooded, swampy Everglades - are in a drought.  How is that possible? 
I thought that answering this question next would tell you as much about the Everglades as it told me, as I started looking into it a few months ago.  We've all heard stories about how Florida (and the Everglades) is full of drained swamps. And that old anecdote about "I've got some swampland in Florida to sell you."  And we'll get into all of that in this post.  But let's start with a little diagram that shows how the surface water hydrology, which greatly affects soil saturation, and thus, drought, has been altered in the last 130 years.  The map on the left shows the 25 million-year old drainage pattern through south Florida.  The map on the right shows how south Florida currently drains.

You don't have to be a hydrologist - and I'm not - to know that this scale of alteration is likely to cause problems that range from soil salinization to sinkholes to sedimentation. And of course, lots of drought.  Asking "how did it get this way" should really be phrased as "Who did this, and why?"  The answer is not complicated, but is still pretty unbelievable, and it should be no surprise that it wasn't done by the first people who came to south Florida.

Big Cypress Seminole Reservation
While there's a surprisingly exhaustive history (and diverse list) of prehistoric peoples in south Florida over the last 15,000 years, a dominant group was the Calusa Indians.  Their diet was heavily based on the small game (fish, turtles, birds) so prevalent in the 'Glades.  Both the Calusa and Tequesta people were basically eradicated by 1750, thanks to the Spanish colonists.  The Seminole arrived in the Everglades in the mid-1800s, after being gradually chased south through Florida by the expansionist American government.   The Seminole and a related group, the Miccosukee, both acquired Federal recognition in the late 1900s and both have Reservation lands in the Everglades.
In the meantime, however, the Everglades' first serious threat, the railroad, had arrived.
One of Flagler's many rail bridges through south Florida
Henry Flagler, known as the "Father of Miami," was a business partner of Rockefeller's. In 1885, Flagler began investing in property and hotels on the east coast of Florida, which lacked a dependable transportation system.  Enter the Flagler Railroad, later the Florida East Coast Railroad, which was completed down to West Palm Beach in 1895, to Miami in 1896 (where he was given tens of thousands of acres of swampland in exchange for completing the railroad), and to Key West (as the Florida Overseas Railroad) in 1912. Why Key West?  The Panama Canal had been under construction since 1904.  Key West was the last deepwater port en route.  To achieve this frankly amazing vision of transportation, Florida ponied up cheap (and sometimes free) land to entice Flagler and his partners.  Of course, they saw it - especially the marshes surrounding West Palm and Miami - as an easy investment.  So they tried to drain it. 

Swamps are drained by canals built to pull seasonal high water out to sea.  The soil and coral rock from the canals was used to build elevated roadways and railroad beds

Now, all that Flagler (who passed away in 1913), and eventually his proteges, had to do was market the land to Americans who had never seen Florida.  From 1919 to 1925, land barons marketed the drained swamps and marshes as "tropical paradise" that was "almost too easy to farm."  The land was free to farmers, and the farmers came.   These same land barons published manuals and brochures on how to do it!

Farming must be easy!
Everyone was getting something.  Farmers were getting free or nearly-free land.  Towns and the state of Florida were getting taxes and municipal income from real estate purchased and other taxes (regardless of a property's true worth to farming, development, or any other use).  The shipping magnates were making millions of dollars exporting raw goods from Florida, and "life's creature comforts" to new Floridians.  What could go wrong?

Cartoon from Florida State Archives, 1916
As many development schemes before it and after it have done, Florida's 1920s boom of swamp-draining, swamp-filling, deforestation, and urban sprawl eventually outgrew the human infrastructure it needed to survive.  Shipping costs rose dramatically in 1925, hurricanes blasted south Florida in 1926 and 1928, and the bottom fell out of the stock market in 1929.  Surely, farming and suburban sprawl in south Florida were dead. Right?

Sugar cane farming in drained wetlands next to Lake Okechobee
You see, during the Great Depression, price supports were put in place for American-grown sugar and many other crops.  In the case of most other crops, these subsidies were eventually abandoned, or modernized into Farm/Food Safety Bills in Congress.  Florida's sugar industry, still retains the basic structure of their Federal subsidy from the 1930s.  Let me lay this out for you.  The sugar farmers (including "farmers" like US Sugar, who owns a whopping 187,000 acres of sugar cane) get price support through tariffs on imported sugar.  In many cases, they also did not pay much or any money for their land, receive Federal subsidies for irrigation, and receive Federal and state assistance to keep the land - historic wetlands - drained for agricultural purposes. 
There's a plan in place to restore much of this acreage to wetlands, but of course the sugar companies want the state of Florida to pay them to leave - to the tune of $5,000 per acre.  The entire industry buyout would be about $2.5 billion.  And to make sure that these deals stand, the sugar industry has spent $32 million on lobbying and political contributions in the last 20 years.  It's almost like they know they've been getting something for free - at the expense of south Florida's wetlands.   But I would be lying if I said that artificially inflated commodity prices have been the only great menace to the Everglades and its water supply since the Great Depression.  Development came back.  Big time.  

Beautiful suburban sprawl like this resulted from massive flood control projects like the Herbert Hoover Dike (completed 1937), which kept water from leaving Lake Okechobee and entering the Everglades, and the Southern Florida Flood Control project, which constructed over 1,200 miles of wetland drainage canals in the 1960s, the result of which can be seen in the drainage map near the top of this post.  Florida's population quadrupled in the 1960s.  Isn't that an amazing figure? It has tripled again since then.  While the demand for housing in much of Florida is currently waning, it will increase again.  What kind of decisions will be made about the value of the Everglades and the marginal lands that surround it?  I hope that history is not an indicator. 
Despite all of these problems and massive alterations to the Everglades' drainage, vegetation, and ecosystem, help is slowly arriving.  And you'd be surprised what it looks like:

More on that next time.


Toure Zeigler said...

Man, great post. I have a question can draining swamps also cause land depression and flooding? Would this be similar to how the Mississippi River's natural channel is diverted which causes the land to be swallowed up the gulf?

Kirk Mantay said...

There are a bunch of different issues at hand, from eliminating floodplain storage (filling in wetlands near the river) to causing sinkholes, to altering the natural erosion and deposition processes.

The first and the last in that list are part of the Mississippi's issues. Most of the river, from the midwest on down, is bermed up so that floods cannot pop out of the riverbanks. All it does is pass the flooding (and sediment) downstream. The Mississippi Delta is exactly that. A delta. Channelizing it for shipping helped build this country, but it has also starved southern LA of sediment.

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