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A hundred years of plumbing, plantations, and politics in the Everglades
When Napoleon Bonaparte Broward ran for the governorship of Florida in 1905, he campaigned on a promise to take care of the Everglades - take care of them, that is, in turn-of-the-century terms. The future of the Everglades became the deciding issue of the 1905 election, and Broward won because he promised to "drain that abominable, pestilence-ridden swamp."
South Florida was then and remains now a maddeningly flat landscape, covered with endless sawgrass marshes, studded with small hammocks (or tree islands), and laced with blackwater sloughs fringed with thick mangroves. Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House when Broward ran for governor, and the conservation ideal was starting to take hold; but most Americans who looked at that landscape in 1905 saw only mosquitoes, the threat of floods, and a wasteland that could be turned into productive farmland if only it were a little less sodden.
Maybe it was prophetic that the first entrepreneur to drain land in the area killed himself after losing everything in the panic of 1893. In any case, the rerouting of water flows in the Everglades has not gone according to plan. Billions of dollars have been made in agriculture and real estate development, and millions of Americans have been able to eat domestic tomatoes on their hamburgers in winter, but now that south Florida has the largest hydrological control system in the world, some of its citizens are running out of drinking water. Jim Webb, regional director of The Wilderness Society, expostulates: "Imagine, in this waterlogged part of the state we sometimes have water shortages!" Extraordinary rescue efforts are now under way - but they must reconfigure a century of misguided plumbing.
What people did not know about the Everglades in 1905 has since filled several books. When the hydrology of south Florida was still intact, Lake Okeechobee overflowed its southern lip every year during the wet season from June through September. The water slid south toward Florida Bay in a shallow, imperceptibly slow glide fifty miles wide and more than a hundred miles long. "It would take a year for the rainfall around Lake Okeechobee to reach the Tamiami Trail," says Bob Johnson, a senior hydrologist in Everglades National Park.
The local Native Americans called this quasi-river the "grassy water." It replenished groundwater reserves, maintained the balance between salt water and fresh water in Florida Bay, and supported a luxuriant profusion of plant and animal species that live in, on, or near water. There were hundreds of unique flora and fauna in this ecosystem, and life in near-unimaginable abundance; in the mid-1900s, individual colonies of egrets and herons harbored more than a hundred thousand nesting birds.
Into this harmoniously functioning system of water and wildlife came the well-meaning engineers of a state intent on development. Broward summed up his policy as "cut 'n' try." He persuaded the legislature to create the Everglades Drainage District, encompassing the entire Everglades system from Lake Okeechobee south to Florida Bay. Between 1900 and 1930, seeking to control floods and supply water for agriculture, state-funded …