Ten years ago, if you would have asked city officials in palm-lined Fort Myers or the tiny island town of Sanibel, or in the east coast Mayberry-like municipality of Stuart or the ecologically-blessed enclaves surrounding the Indian River Lagoon; how will the environmental deterioration of the Greater Florida Everglades affect their well-being?; most would have likely shrugged.
Now after millions of dollars in canceled real estate transactions, destroyed coastal fisheries, aggressive health threats and deflated quality of life standards; these communities are painfully aware of how the relatively far-away Everglades have begun to impact their lives. Luckily, the more populated and economically powerful cities of lower South Florida have not had to suffer these consequences as much. But a water crisis of a totally different caliber is stalking these urban centers. There is not a lot of time to act. What is this threat and what can be done?
Let’s start with some geological facts to better understand the next possible crisis. Historically, as Lake Okeechobee would overflow its southern boundaries, much like a bathtub overflowing its basin, the waters would spread out in a wide sheet flow. Two higher ridges of land; one on the east coast of Florida and the other on the west coast would keep these waters contained in the state’s center. Much of these lands would become known as the traditional Everglades, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’s legendary ‘River of Grass’. Because the portion of Florida south of Lake Okeechobee is famously flat and ever-so-slightly tilted toward the bottom of the state, the water of Lake Okeechobee would flow slowly to the south. Thus, the Everglades became known as the world’s widest, shallowest and slowest moving river (and not a ‘swamp’ which designates stagnant water). Eventually through coastal rivers, sloughs and the end of terra firma at the bottom of the state, the Everglades would meet the ocean, the Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
However, as much water as moved south would also move downward through Florida’s porous oolitic limestone strata. Here it would meet a giant subterranean basin called the Biscayne Aquifer. It is the Biscayne Aquifer that makes human life possible in South Florida. It comprises our ENTIRE water supply.
Now imagine if the water supply flowing south of the lake were to be diverted toward the coasts (unfortunately, we don’t have to imagine that). And imagine if less water were to seep through to the underground Biscayne Aquifer. Now as the force of enormous salt water bodies that surround the peninsula of Florida start to put pressure on this historic, centralized freshwater basin, fissures begin to develop allowing salt water into its previously guarded confines. With less above-ground, downward pressure from normal freshwater flows, the fissures widen. Now accelerate these problems by excavating a series of untested deep-water storage basins to divert water from Lake Okeechobee to man-made storage with the aim of reverse-pumping in times of drought. We have just compounded the geological instability of Southern Florida to the breaking point. If the Biscayne Aquifer is poisoned by salt water intrusion, we are done.
None of this has to happen. The original natural water regime of historic Florida worked amazingly well. Most of its component parts are still intact. I love Miami, my ‘particular’ South Florida mecca and I demand that the state reestablishes the corridor between Lake Okeechobee and the traditional Everglades. While we still have time, let the waters flow south again. The wolf is at the door. We have been warned.
Charles J. Kropke is a leading voice on Everglades issues. His Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary “The Unseen Everglades” has been aired nationally to critical acclaim. He is also the owner of Dragonfly Expeditions, a 25-year-old expeditionary tour company of Florida and the Caribbean Basin.