By Maria Bakkalapulo for Sierra Club
Everyone knows the Everglades as a wet place, but there can be too much of a good thing, and excess water is drowning the Everglades. Marshes and tree islands are submerged in waters too deep for birds to nest and wade. Water has accumulated since the month of June, with a record-breaking wet season presaging the worst flooding in seventy years. Of all the attention surrounding Hurricane Irma, little is given to the way the Florida Everglades protected the state from greater damage. The largest subtropical wetland ecosystem in North America acted as a “shock absorber” against the storm’s landfall, decreasing the predicted storm surges and absorbing the rainfall and runoff. Even weeks into dry season, the Everglades is still facing a long recovery.
Celeste De Palma is an Everglades Policy Associate for the Florida Audubon. “When you look at wetlands they are incredibly valuable in terms of giving us protection against incoming storms or hurricanes, like the ones we just had,” explained De Palma. “The reason for that is that when you look at the wetland ecosystem one acre of wetlands is able to hold up to 1.5 million gallons of float waters and for every 2.7 miles that a hurricane crosses the wetlands system the storm surge is reduced by a foot so when you hear something like that you should think the wetlands are our allies, our shock absorbers.”
The Everglades varies from a shallow freshwater river, filled with aquatic plants and dotted with islands of trees, to a saltwater apron of mangroves, sea grasses and coral reefs, the combination of which naturally deal with huge variance in precipitation. The 60 mile wide, 100 mile long northern catchment of the glades begin around Orlando, draining to the Kissimmee River, and into the 730 square mile Lake Okeechobee. From there the water would naturally have fed the southern Everglades uninterrupted, but development has led to complex problems with water management. With Hurricane Irma the strongest storm on record in the Atlantic, and more intense, wetter storms predicted for the future, the Everglades have come to the forefront as a major natural defense.
At the end of this wet season, the water levels on Lake Okeechobee reached a dangerous 17 feet. As the largest fresh water lake in Florida, its condition has wide ranging effects. Modern day water management has enclosed the lake within the Herbert Hoover Dike, and largely relies on oversaturated estuaries to discharge water east and west to the sea. The Army Corps of Engineers, already engaged in strengthening work on the dike, made daily inspections during Hurricane Irma, and spotted weaknesses that led to mandatory evacuations.
“We were lucky that hurricane Irma interacted with the Everglades first before going straight through to our communities, although I would say the Keys, unfortunately, hit first and it was pretty devastating,” De Palma said. “When you look at the Everglades ecosystem, it would hug the entire peninsula so it really acted as a shield that would be the first interaction with any incoming storm. So when you look at the communities we have right now, what we’ve done is the essentially pluck away at these wetlands that used to be the shock absorbers.”
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation commissioner, Ron Bergeron, a charismatic Gladesman, is known locally as ‘Alligator Ron’. His family came to Florida in the 1800’s and has been in Florida for eight generations. Bergeron took his first airboat ride at the age of three. He told the media that the Everglades is in a catastrophic condition, with the worst flooding he’s seen in seventy years. “We broke the 1947 record for rainfall. The Everglades was inundated, including all of the deer Islands across the ‘glades. We worked very hard with our federal partners on an emergency deviation.” The coordinated deviations moved vast quantities of water through Big Cypress National Preserve and from there, south to Florida Bay, which has been suffering a lack of fresh water for decades. Groups of animals were seen in their hundreds, seeking refuge on levees that surround the conservation area, but as state and federal agencies work together to relieve water from the upper areas of the watershed, things are starting to normalize. ”The deer islands are drying up, so there’s some refuge for fur-bearing animals, but water levels have to come down more for things to be improved for wading birds. That’s something people have to understand, when you have wetlands, and there is three feet of water, well, there is no wading bird with three foot legs,” describes Bergeron.
Right now, only 50% of the original ecosystem remains, and is in flux, with some areas being degraded while others are being restored. James Erskine, the Everglades Coordinator for Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, oversees the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) enacted by the U.S. Congress in 2000 for the restoration of the Everglades ecosystem. The goal is to restore, preserve and protect the south Florida ecosystem while providing for other water-related needs in the region, including water supply and flood protection. With a 10.5 billion budget spanning a 35+ year timeline, it is the biggest hydraulic restoration project ever undertaken in the United States. Erskine is optimistic about the project: “There were some growing pains at the beginning. Getting some initial projects off the ground may have taken a little longer than some of the stakeholders or biologists might like, but right now we have tremendous momentum.” To re-establish natural water flow, sections of the Tamiami Trail highway, which runs across the southern Everglades, are being raised on concrete pillars, including an already completed one mile section, and a 2.6 mile segment now under construction.
“The Everglades hydrology is one wide sheet flow – shallow water moving slowly across a broad area. Restoring that, along the border of the Everglades wildlife management area and Everglades National Park where Tamiami Trail resides is very important, and it’s going be a tremendous help, allowing water through the system in times like this, and benefiting the Everglades wildlife management areas,” explained Erskine. “We need to maintain that north to south flow. If we have a traffic jam one point in the system it blocks everything north of it. Bring back the natural flow, restore quality timing and distribution.We know our natural systems have evolved over the years facing tropical storms and rainfall events and hurricanes,” said Erskine. One of the biggest concerns, says Erskine, is the wildlife. “We are still concerned about wildlife. The water levels in the Everglades management area are not compatible with the native species, both ecology and habitat” Erskine continues. “We know that water levels that persists greater than two feet, for longer than sixty days can be detrimental. Right now we are at about one hundred and eighty days, we do have concerns about both immediate and lasting effects of that.”
Downstream south of Lake Okeechobee, near the Tamiami Trail, Houston Cypress tells his airboat-tour guests “welcome home” as they disembark, windblown from their trip across the watery Everglades. They proceed along the dock to visit his family’s hammock tree island, called “Where the Little Pot Sits,” a place filled with spiritual significance. Houston and his extended family are part of the community of a few hundred sovereign Miccosukee Tribe, who, along with their modern village and casino, maintain a number of more traditional properties on tree islands scattered through Water Conservation Area 3A. Cypress, with his long hair and traditional Miccosukee dress, exudes the confidence and rooted character born of a proud history, and as co-founder of the Love the Everglades Movement, he engages people with the Everglades, educating and advocating for cleaning up their waters. Coalitions are taking action around that goal, which has become more important than ever.
The Miccosukee are attuned to nature more than most, and the Everglades frames their way of life, and helps them maintain an emotional balance. “Being healthy on a physical, mental and spiritual level – this is just a part of the bigger universe that we are part of, a grand philosophy of life that we have. It is a place where we get out medicine, where we get our food, where we tell our stories and the way we express our connection to the universe.
These tree islands were refuge to the Miccosukee going back to the early 1800’s during the “Trail of Tears”, when most of the Miccosukees were forced to the West of the Mississippi river. At least 100 never surrendered and hid in the Everglades. Houston Cypress is a descendent of those that eluded capture. Setting aside this tragic history, Cypress believes it is important that everyone work together to save the Everglades. “When I think about the Everglades and look at it in my time on this earth, I am definitely conflicted in the sense that I am very sad for all of the things that we have lost, but also very hopeful about what we can achieve if we get our act together,” says Cypress. “The environment is resilient and bounces back, the animals come back. So, if we can achieve progress, there is hope. We can do things right, we can get things done – together.”