Visitors to Everglades National Park soon discover the park is a mysteriously beautiful and very watery place.
What can be difficult to visualize is that the Everglades watershed used to be wetter than it is today. Some may not realize that the Everglades wetlands are far bigger than the park, extending from the Kissimmee River through Lake Okeechobee and all the way to Florida Bay. What is special about the park is that it is the most intact portion of the whole Everglades watershed.
Canals have been the primary tool used for draining the Everglades. The oldest known canals that cut through the Everglades were dug for transportation purposes 1,200 years ago by the Calusa and Tequesta native tribes. In 2006, the National Park Service listed as a National Historic Landmark the nearly four-mile Mud Lake Canal, one of the first canals in the Calusa and Tequesta navigation system.
Modern wetland drainage of the greater Everglades region began in the 1880s. The industrialist and real estate developer Hamilton Disston bought four million acres to carry out his plan to drain and develop Florida. Although his master plan did not succeed, he was able to start straightening the Kissimmee River, build a canal that connected Lake Okeechobee with the Caloosahatchee River and begin the creation of many new towns.
Disston wanted to drain the southern Everglades, but his plan was halted because of the difficulty of cutting through the South Florida's limestone aquifer. Possibly inspired by Disston, local entrepreneurs hoped to drain Cape Sable, a small peninsula at the southwestern tip of Florida, to carve out a living as farmers and cattle ranchers.
From 1904 until his death in 1910, Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward made draining the Everglades region his main campaign. In 1907, he formed the Everglades Drainage District so the affected counties could be taxed and pay for the drainage effort. His legacy endured well into the 1920s although more plans for drainage canals were made than canals constructed.
Bob Johnson, director of the park's South Florida Natural Resource Center, explains that "early drainage efforts did have an immediate and lasting impact on Everglades ecosystems prompting conservationists to act. Today, the impacts are even more widespread."
One of the first conservation efforts was made by the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs. Preservation Committee Chairwoman May Mann Jennings convinced the state to establish Royal Palm State Park in 1916 to protect the area from drainage and development, especially railroad construction.
Around this same time, botanist John Kunkel Small and Charles Deering, a locally well-known businessman and self-taught environmentalist, documented in their botanical notes their concern for how the natural environments were disappearing. They noted that extensive drainage of the Everglades, land development and the worsening condition of the wetlands began after a hurricane struck Miami in 1926 and after another struck Lake Okeechobee in 1928.
In his 1929 book, Eden to Sahara, Small prophetically warned of the eventual extermination of plants and wildlife being caused by drainage of the Everglades, human-sparked fires and soil erosion.
Apparently, officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers did not read Small's book because in 1930, the agency built levees creating the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee to protect the growing human population against more flooding.
Landscape designer Ernest F. Coe led the way in 1934 to expand the area set aside as Royal Palm State Park into a national park. The park's enabling legislation was the first of its kind specifically intended to protect the natural diversity and abundance of plants and animals and wilderness.
All may have seemed well for a while, but 1947 was a year of both progressive and backward changes for the Everglades watershed. Everglades National Park was finally established, Marjory Stoneman Douglas' influential book, Everglades: The River of Grass, was published, and it was the end of a 10-year drought that came with two hurricanes and a wetter than normal wet season, bringing 100 inches of rainfall to the southern Everglades.
In 1948, after only one year of deliberation, Congress approved the Corps' design for the Central and South Florida Project. Its purpose was to provide flood protection without accounting for sufficient water to adequately support the needs of fish and wildlife resources. These needs were considered secondary to urban and agricultural water supplies.
When the Corps completed construction of the Central and South Florida Project in the 1960s, it included 720 miles of canals along with 1,000 miles of levees. The project also included expanding the dike around Lake Okeechobee. The South Florida Water Management District now uses at least 200 water control structures to manage water flow through the Everglades watershed.
Park scientists noticed the effects of the shortfall of water to the park. Fortunately, they had a determined ally, Nathanial Reed, in Washington to help them.
"I appealed to the Nixon administration when I was Assistant Secretary of the Interior to fund a science center within the park in an effort to better understand why the multiple impacts of water mismanagement were having such an incredible adverse impact on the world famous breeding colonies of egrets, herons, and spoonbills," Reed said.
In 1977, his appeal resulted in the establishment of the South Florida Natural Resources Center. It is the science and natural resources division of Everglades National Park and serves as the nexus of scientific inquiry to support all four national parks in South Florida.
Since the 1970s, Congress has authorized several restoration projects jointly with the state of Florida.
The most prominent efforts include the Modified Water Deliveries project, which has provided flood protection to the 8.5-square-mile area near the park and S.W. 168 Street; the one-mile bridge on Tamiami Trail completed in March 2013 that will bring more water to the northeastern section of the park; and the interagency Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan that addresses the park and regional environmental consequences of the Central and South Florida Project.
Restoring the Everglades is complex. Three of the essential ingredients are: getting the water right, protecting the natural environment and fostering compatibility between the man-made and natural environments.
Pedro Ramos, the park's superintendent, anticipates that visitors will see dramatic positive environmental changes as restoration progresses, including more water and larger wetlands.
"It took decades to drain the Everglades and will take two or three more to restore it," he said. "Restoration is necessary because it is not just about the environment. Our drinking water comes from the Everglades. We are looking forward to the transition to a more natural, resilient Everglades with clean water for many future generations to enjoy."
This is the first part of a two-part series.