Florida is home to the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States: The Everglades. But at this rate, this treasured World Heritage Site won’t last forever. Decades of development and abuse have mortally wounded this wetland, and it will cost billions to bring it back. But if we don’t, the consequences may be deadly.
The Great River of Grass
The Everglades isn’t just a tourist destination—it’s a massive ecosystem that spans over two million acres, from Lake Okeechobee to the Keys. According to the National Wildlife Federation, the lake overflows during the rainy season and starts the movement of excess water down a shallow, sawgrass-dominated river that feeds into the Everglades National Park and, eventually, Florida Bay. Eve Samples, executive director of conservationist group Friends of the Everglades, said the expansive environment serves as home to thousands of species of birds, reptiles and mammals, “some of which are found nowhere else in the world.” One surprising example, she said, is not a bird or fish, but the Florida panther.
While the Everglades provide shelter to many animals, they are vital to one particular species of mammal: humans. In particular, Miamians. “The water supply for 8 million South Floridians depends on the Everglades,” Samples said. According to Kathleen Sullivan Sealey, a professor in University of Miami’s biology department, drinking water comes from an aquifer, which is “recharged” by the Everglades. Damage to the ecosystem, she continued, could be incredibly hazardous to human health. “Whatever happens to the Everglades affects everyone,” said Sealey. Cholera is just one ailment that can come from contaminated water.
A Fight For the Ages
Samples said that right now the Everglades is facing threats from all directions—saltwater inundation from the South and a lack of freshwater flow from the North, to name a few. Saving the Everglades will be a tremendous fight, and Generation Z may not live to see the end of it. “It’s going to be something our grandchildren work on,” said Sealey. The destruction of the Everglades has taken decades, and the rebuilding will take at least as long.
“To simplify,” Samples said, “It’s about how we handle water from Lake Okeechobee.” Sugar farms to the south of Okeechobee and manmade changes to river flows prevent fresh water from getting the to the Everglades, opening up the possibility for saltwater intrusion from the South. Additionally, an overflow of pollutants and nutrients combined with rising temperatures can contribute to increasing instances of toxic algae blooms.
Scientists, scholars and policy makers know this, which is why the U.S. government has been fighting to save the Everglades for years, but not hard enough. The bipartisan Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was signed in 2000—but the follow-up has fallen short, Samples explained. Creation of storm water treatment areas, land buybacks and more has already occurred to the tune of around $6 billion. But of the 68 different projects in the plan, she said, not one has been completed. The restoration will take at least another $7 billion in the next 10 years. “It’s a huge amount of money, but if we don’t do it, we lose even more,” said Samples.
words_kylea henseler. illustration & design_giselle spicer.