Episode 1: A River Runs Dry
In Everglades National Park, parts of the river of grass are collapsing – literally. A lot of the problems have to do with massive efforts to drain and replumb Florida’s most important water resource, an ecosystem unlike any other on Earth.
Welcome to the first episode of DRAINED, a podcast from WMFE and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, about the massive plan to save the Everglades. WMFE environmental reporter Amy Green wades into the controversy around one of the most ambitious environmental restoration efforts ever undertaken.
Listen by clicking on the player above or read the transcript below.
AMY GREEN: Just off the main road through the sawgrass prairie of Everglades National Park …
AMY GREEN: “I’m stepping very carefully because I do not want to fall in the water.”
AMY GREEN: … the river of grass is collapsing. Literally.
AMY GREEN: “The water feels great. It’s so cool and refreshing.”
AMY GREEN: “OK, I just fell in almost to my waist, but I’m back now.
“What did I just fall into exactly?”
TIFFANY TROXLER: “That is some of the peat, and the limestone is about, I don’t know, five feet below us right now. So I don’t think you fell all the way to the limestone. But yes, you fell through a hole, a common occurrence in Everglades field research. So you’re indoctrinated. You’ve become a field researcher. Bravo.”
AMY GREEN: Tiffany Troxler is the science director at the Sea Level Solutions Center in the Institute of Environment at Florida International University. She and I are stepping precariously across a series of wooden and aluminum boards forming a narrow bridge across a 10 foot-by-10-foot hole of water, basically, that has opened up here in the sawgrass.
TIFFANY TROXLER: “The collapse here is, it’s patchy. You get some larger ponds, but you see a number of sawgrass pedestals that remain.”
AMY GREEN: Troxler kneels, reaches into the water and retrieves a fistful of the soil at the bottom, peat.
TIFFANY TROXLER: “You can feel it’s spongy, and it holds a lot of water. So if you squeeze it, you can compress it down to something much smaller in size.”
AMY GREEN: The peat is dense and richly black, made of decomposed plant remains that have piled up layer upon layer over centuries.
AMY GREEN: “Is this kind of like looking at an Everglades time capsule?”
TIFFANY TROXLER: “That’s a great way to think about it. Absolutely. This stuff takes a very long time to accumulate.”
AMY GREEN: “Like how many years?”
TIFFANY TROXLER: “Thousands of years to accumulate.”
TIFFANY TROXLER: “Peat is essentially the foundation that all of or much of the wetland area that you see in the Everglades is supported by.
“The elevation of the peat also controls the type of habitats that you see in the Everglades. If it’s a little bit higher you get tree islands. If it’s a little bit lower you can get sawgrass marshes.
“Very small changes in the elevation of the peat control the distribution of the habitats, and the distribution of the habitats is what supports the extraordinary wildlife that people from all over the world come to see.”
AMY GREEN: Peat collapse has been documented in the Everglades since the 1920s, when newly dug canals introduced saltwater into freshwater marshes.
TIFFANY TROXLER: “This marsh is one that used to be flooded all the time.”
AMY GREEN: The dearth of freshwater has left Everglades marshes like this one more vulnerable to rising seas associated with climate change.
TIFFANY TROXLER: “These plants here are the sawgrass plants that you see around. They are more of a freshwater plant than they are saltwater plant.”
AMY GREEN: When the sawgrass is exposed to salt water it grows stressed or dies off, slowing the production of roots that contribute to peat formation. The peat breaks down.
TIFFANY TROXLER: “It can’t maintain itself. It starts to break apart. The soils become more porous.”
AMY GREEN: Eventually the marsh collapses. Open water replaces the marsh, leading to land loss similar to what has been documented in Louisiana, although the rate of loss here in the Everglades appears to be more dramatic.
TIFFANY TROXLER: “The influence of saltwater intrusion plus dropping the water table down below the soil surface is what is sort of the double whammy in terms of peat collapse.
“If we can keep these wetlands wet through the year, the peat collapse process should be slowed.”
AMY GREEN: In recent years a lot has been wrong with Florida’s waterways and with the Everglades. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican elected with President Donald Trump’s endorsement, has recognized the problems as economic in a state reliant on growth and tourism. He has made the problems a central issue of his administration.
RON DESANTIS: “A historic $625 million for water resources projects, including Everglades restoration. This is the first of four steps to get to the $2.5 billion that I committed to in my executive order, and that will be a $1 billion increase over the previous four-year investment in water and Everglades.”
AMY GREEN: And that’s great! But a lot of the problems, like peat collapse, go back a century or more. They have to do with massive efforts to drain and replumb Florida’s most important water resource: the Everglades, an ecosystem unlike any other on Earth.
From WMFE and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, this is DRAINED — a podcast series about the massive plan to save the Everglades.
I’m Amy Green.
Episode 1, “A river runs dry”
HISTORICAL VIDEO: “Below are the Everglades, a vast island-dotted swampy territory covering the southern tip of Florida’s mainland. Its 5,000 square miles include almost impenetrable vegetation and thickets of cypress, pine and mangroves. Thousands of kinds of wildlife, many of them unknown anywhere else in the continental United States, live here. At the Cuthbert Lake bird sanctuary rare species fill the air as they did in prehistoric times.”
AMY GREEN: The Everglades represent one of the most treasured and troubled ecosystems in the world. The watershed spans central and south Florida, encompassing a land area twice the size of New Hampshire. It supports dozens of threatened and endangered species like the American alligator, West Indian manatee and Florida panther – the official state animal – and the drinking water for more than 8 million Floridians.
I am an environmental journalist at WMFE, Central Florida’s flagship NPR station. I grew up in Florida and now am raising my 6-year-old daughter here, and for the past 10 years my pastime has been an obsession with the Everglades.
To understand the Everglades you have to understand that at the heart of everything is the water. The lifeblood water — flowing at the right place, at the right time and at the right rate — is the reason for everything.
Back in 2008 I was in Everglades National Park reporting for a newspaper article. This was back before I was a radio journalist, and the scientist I was with told me a story about the Old Ingraham Highway, which when it opened in the early 1920s was the first to give Ford Model Ts access to the fishing village of Flamingo near the peninsula’s southernmost tip.
After the highway opened Floridians noticed a change in the vegetation on the highway’s south side, where it crossed Taylor Slough. Carolina willow and pond apple flourished, while on the north side the sawgrass remained. Eventually scientists would understand the highway served as a dam for the river of grass, altering the flow subtly but enough to change the vegetation.
I was hooked, right then and there. From then on I wanted to learn every single thing I could about this amazing and confounding place.
A century ago much of the Florida peninsula was underwater. Imagine Miami International Airport underwater, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami as slivers of cities perched on the 5-mile-wide Atlantic Coastal Ridge, the Everglades’ historic eastern bank.
CHARLES LEE: “I’m Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon Florida.
“One of the things that is mostly unknown to people is the amount of water that was in the Everglades. And if you look at the old historical records of early attempts at exploration, they were actually done in boats.”
AMY GREEN: The watershed begins near Orlando with the headwaters of the Kissimmee River, and historically the river meandered lazily into Lake Okeechobee.
FRED SKLAR: “I am Fred Sklar. I am director of the Everglades Systems Assessment Section at the South Florida Water Management District.
“It had massive pond apple forests along the edges of Lake Okeechobee. And that giant pond apple forest acted as a giant sieve to move water not like a river, but it dispersed it across a giant floodplain. And that created the headwaters for the unique low-nutrient wetlands that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.”
AMY GREEN: From there Lake Okeechobee, the state’s largest lake, spilled the water over its southern brim, sending forth a shallow sheet flowing slowly the length of South Florida in an arc toward Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. This watery arc was the Everglades.
The Everglades always has been elusive, mysterious, misunderstood. The river of grass hardly is an obvious wonder of nature like the Grand Canyon or Mississippi River. The water courses 100 feet a day, above limestone bedrock sloping two inches a mile. The experience of the Everglades can be uncomfortable — hot, wet and rife with mosquitoes.
FRED SKLAR: “The Everglades was like a tropical jungle.”
AMY GREEN: The watershed’s shores were the first on the continent to be discovered by early European voyagers, but the region itself was among the last to be explored.
FRED SKLAR: “There would be these thick stands of sawgrass, which you never want to walk through with shorts on. They don’t call it sawgrass for nothing.”
AMY GREEN: In 1947 Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the Florida journalist and environmental activist, published her classic book, “Everglades: River Of Grass,” coining the iconic phrase. Back then the region still was not fully mapped.
FRED SKLAR: “It was the super colonies of herons and egrets and ibis and wood storks that set the Everglades apart from any other wetland in North America.”
AMY GREEN: Early Floridians wanted to drain the Everglades – reclaim them as they called it – and transform the state from backwater to booming agricultural and economic center. There were various attempts at drainage.
AMY GREEN: “Then what happened?”
FRED SKLAR: “There were a series of hurricanes that killed a few thousand people. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers came in and said, ‘Well, we need flood control.'”
WATERS OF DESTINY: “All of a sudden death, as water shows its other face, hideous, unrelenting, shrieking its rage, the vicious scourge of mankind burying life and land under its relentless and merciless depths. This is the story of such water and its mastery by the determined hand of man.”
AMY GREEN: Waters of Destiny was a government propaganda film, basically – very Manifest Destiny – about what is known as the C&SF project (it stands for the Central and Southern Florida Project for Flood Control and Other Purposes). The project was authorized by Congress in 1948.
At the time the project was hailed as the nation’s largest civil works undertaking, and it was aimed at taming the Everglades once and for all. The film featured actual footage of the hurricanes and construction on the massive project.
WATERS OF DESTINY: “Something had to be done and something was. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was assigned the mission of planning and designing a complete project for flood control throughout the district, then proceed to build it.”
CHARLES LEE: “The initial Central and Southern Florida flood control project was not at all an environmental restoration project. It was a traditional corps of engineers exploitive development project, and its only considerations were further conquering the Everglades to make it more useful for human endeavors.”
FRED SKLAR: “Hundreds and hundreds of miles of levees were built around the Everglades to keep the water out of the people’s homes.”
WATERS OF DESTINY: “This was tough going. The lime rock under the soil had to be blasted out.”
AMY GREEN: Lake Okeechobee underwent some of the biggest changes. No more would its water spill over its southern brim. An earthen dike was constructed around the lake, and canals were excavated drawing its water east to the Atlantic Ocean and west to the Gulf of Mexico, …
CHARLES LEE: “… including the St. Lucie Canal and the Caloosahatchee Canal between Lake Okeechobee and coastal waters. And then there were a series of canals like the Miami Canal.”
AMY GREEN: To the south the Everglades Agricultural Area was established, along with a series of what were called Water Conservation Areas.
FRED SKLAR: “In the process of compartmentalizing, we created a nonuniform flowing system. We created these compartments that were totally ecologically different than the natural Everglades.”
AMY GREEN: It all was very bureaucratic. The resplendent Kissimmee River, for instance, which once had supported a one- to two-mile-wide floodplain, was channelized into the C-38 canal. The massive project also included a vast network of water control structures and pump stations.
WATERS OF DESTINY: “Foot by foot, mile by mile the work went on drilling, blasting, digging, bite by bite, five to eight cubic yards per mouthful, slowly, persistently gouging the bottom to build up the top.”
AMY GREEN: Today the water management infrastructure is a marvel, among the most complex in the world.
WATERS OF DESTINY: “Water, once the fierce uncompromising enemy of this long, wide, low-lying land, will become its greatest ally. The rains may come, but there will be no fear in them. They are the waters of Florida’s unfolding destiny, the bright promise of Florida’s glowing future.”
AMY GREEN: By 1973 the work essentially was complete.
CHARLES LEE: “There was never any notion that there was a limit to the kind of thing man could do without bringing about adverse consequences.”
AMY GREEN: But soon there were new problems.
FRED SKLAR: “All the aspects of the Everglades that made it the Everglades were disappearing. There were no longer super colonies of wading birds. There was like a 90% reduction in wading birds. There was pollution.”
AMY GREEN: By the 1990s, just two decades later, it was clear the Everglades – and south Florida’s drinking water supply – were in trouble.
FRED SKLAR: “We realized that by draining the Everglades, we were destroying our water supply.”
AMY GREEN: Most notably, the massive government project had been designed for a population of some 500-thousand people in central and south Florida, but by then the population was projected to boom by many times that. (The population was near 9 million by 2019.)
In December 2000 then-President Bill Clinton signed into law a new Everglades plan billed as the largest environmental restoration ever in the world. Although the signing went largely unnoticed, as most of the world focused instead on Florida’s hanging chads and the debacle of the 2000 presidential election recount.
BILL CLINTON: “We have saved and restored some of our most glorious natural wonders, from Florida’s Everglades to Hawaii’s coral reefs. From the redwoods of California to the Redrock canyons of Utah.”
AMY GREEN: That’s Clinton just a few weeks later, in January 2001. But for others the signing was huge.
FRED SKLAR: “A lot of us had pictures of Clinton in the Oval Office with all these people surrounding him signing the document because it was such a momentous occasion. No one had ever seen anything like it before.”
AMY GREEN: I actually have that photograph, too. Clinton is grinning as he leans over his desk and signs the legislation with 18 ceremonial pens. Gathered around him are more than a dozen elected officials and environmental advocates who helped push the plan through.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, as it was called, or CERP, was even bigger than the replumbing that had come before it but was designed to do the opposite. Whereas the previous plan had been aimed at containing the Everglades, this new one was intended to revive the river of grass and secure the region’s drinking water for future generations.
This would involve even more elaborate water management infrastructure, and even then the Everglades would remain half of its former self. The goal was to restore a more natural flow of water south from Lake Okeechobee, rather than east and west through a series of canals to the coasts.
FRED SKLAR: “It wanted to change the fact that for flood control, we were sending thousands and thousands of gallons, millions of gallons of water out to the Atlantic Ocean. We were just pumping them out. And the system was drying down. The system was burning. The system was changing in terms of water quality.”
AMY GREEN: Twenty years later the now $17 billion plan remains one of the world’s most substantial efforts at ecological restoration, but since its implementation the effort has been woefully underfunded and behind-schedule as some of the same environmental problems it was intended to address continue.
I have reported on many of these problems for WMFE and in my spare time have been writing a book about the Everglades. With the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan now at its 20-year mark I wondered: How’s that going?
Next on DRAINED, Episode 2, “Toxic water” —
JACQUI THURLOW-LIPPISCH: “We call it the seven gates of hell. Because there are seven gates, and they open one to seven depending on how much water the army corps discharges through that gate. And it is truly the seven gates of hell.”
AMY GREEN: DRAINED is a podcast from WMFE and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. It’s reported and hosted by me, Amy Green, and edited by Trevor Aaronson and Matthew Peddie. Mix and sound design by Paul Vaitkus. Mac Dula, Jenny Babcock and Ryan Ellison provided additional production help. Cliff Tumetel also contributed. Special thanks to Johns Hopkins University Press.
Thanks for listening.
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