For most of its history, that massive rain-fed series of wetlands, lakes and rivers we call the Everglades flowed from just below Orlando and through Lake Okeechobee south to the tip of the Florida peninsula, as well as east and west towards the coasts. More than a century’s worth of extensive urban and agricultural development has not only reduced the wetlands’ size in half, but fertilizer from upstream agricultural areas has polluted the water, degraded the ecosystem and harmed wildlife in the remaining Everglades.
Development – As the twentieth century dawned, early conservationists saw the dredging of the Everglades as the smart, progressive thing to do. Though the urban development better accommodated the growing population, it left the Everglades less than half its original size. 1,800 miles of canals and dams currently break up the natural system, with water control points and pump stations diverting the natural flow of water to coastal towns and cities. Water must be released to estuaries to prevent flooding and Florida finds itself in a situation where there is often too much water in the wet years, and not enough in the dry ones.
Nutrient Pollution – With the development of South Florida came the establishment of agricultural lands. Sixty years ago, demographers predicted South Florida’s population would reach two million people by the 21st century. It’s already at eight million and expected to double in the next 50 years. Thus, fertilizers used in agricultural areas north and south of Lake Okeechobee made their way into the heart of the Everglades, through the estuaries stretching east and west, and into Florida’s iconic beaches.
Invasive Species – Exotic Plants and animals can be thought of as a kind of biological pollution. Exotic animals, such as Burmese pythons, and exotic plants, such as Brazilian pepper and Australian pine, displace natives and threaten to disrupt ecosystem balance.
Sea Level Rise – The projected increase of sea level rise affects both the natural areas and developed areas of the Everglades. In our coastal cities, sea level rise will increase the pressures for flood control and water supply on a system already strained to the breaking point. In the natural areas of the Everglades, saltwater encroachment into freshwater marshes will cause rapid retreat of coastal mashes. Everglades restoration is our best hope of keeping the Everglades wet and holding back the saltwater invasion.