- Historic Sites
The Bitter Struggle For A National Park
April 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 3
In 1926 and again in 1928 hurricanes swept up from the Caribbean and sent the waters of that great shallow saucer, Lake Okeechobee, howling down across the cultivated fields and into the towns and cities clustered around the edge of the lake. More than two thousand people drowned in the floods. Those disasters brought a new “improvement” to the Everglades: an immense levee, high enough that Okeechobee could never again overflow its banks as it had in those two dreadful autumns. And when the levee was completed, drought brought fire to the drained land below the lake. Even in Miami, the skies turned gray with smoke. “What had been a river of grass,” wrote Miss Douglas, “was made in one chaotic gesture of greed and ignorance and folly, a river of fire.” As far as some old-timers were concerned, the Everglades were finished.
Yet they were no more finished than the floods or the fires. Two hurricanes smashed across Florida in the fall of 1947, after a prolonged period of heavy rainfall, and left the farmers and townspeople holding a bill for $6o,000,000 in damages. That settled it. In Tallahassee and in Washington legislators demanded action: increase the carrying capacity of the canals; have the Army engineers raise even higher the Okeechobee levee; and create water-storage areas to hold back the flood waters from the defenseless cities of Fort Lauderdale and Miami until the waters can be made useful to man —to irrigate his farmland and wet the limestone acquifers that keep sweet the drinking water of his cities. What Florida demanded, Florida got. They called it the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project. Over the next twenty years, the federal government was to underwrite this ambitious public works program to the extent of some $ 170,000,000 (and that only half the project). But in 1948, so soon after the last great flood, Florida was satisfied just to get the project authorized. Ranchers and city slickers were so excited about the prospects that hardly anyone took notice of South Florida’s other major event several months earlier—the official opening of Everglades National Park.
From the beginning, administrators of both the park and the Flood Control District (F.C.D.) have approached the critical problem of Everglades water like jealous twins tugging at opposite ends of a security blanket. Indeed, before either was a year old, a conflict was inevitable. Here was the flood control project seeking to harness the Everglades’ historic flow; there was the park, whose entire biota depended on water—and plenty of it. “The question,” Assistant Secretary of the Interior William E. Warne declared in a letter to the Army’s chief of engineers, “is not one of too much water, but a guarantee that there shall not be too little.”
The record, of course, shows that far too little water to sustain a fragile ecosystem dribbled into the national park during the 1962–65 drought. In fact, 1962 marked the completion of Levee 29 along the park’s northern boundary and the closing of floodgates along the Tamiami Trail. “Henceforth, flow would be artificially controlled,” notes the Leopold report. “The River of Grass, after 5,000 years, had ceased to flow.” In the park, water levels fell to an unprecedented low (at least in the annals of human mismanagement). Many species of aquatic life managed to survive in the park only because pockets of water remained in the deepest alligator holes and crayfish burrows in marl and limestone under the powder-dry muck. Dr. Frank C. Craighead, a well-known consulting biologist to the park, writing in 1968 of the alligator’s “keystone” position in the ecology of the Everglades and of the incredible destruction of wildlife in the park during those drought years of the early 1960’s, observed that “it seems reasonable to believe that [the alligators] now living represent a reduction to about one or two per cent of those present” before the man-induced droughts.
The park’s riparian competitors argue that the old overland flow through the saw grass was insignificant even before the region was crisscrossed with dikes and canals. True, most of the park’s water does come direct from the clouds: as much as 80 per cent of the total supply is the rain that falls on the park itself. Yet the remaining 20 per cent that would otherwise come slowly overland is essential, particularly after the rains have ended in October. “What flows in from the north,” says James H. Hartwell, a hydrologist of the U.S. Geological Survey in Miami, “is the .national park’s lifeblood.”
Based on a twenty-year flow pattern, hydrologists have determined that, in addition to direct rainfall, the park needs a minimum of 315,000 acre-feet per year (an acre-foot is the volume of water that will cover an area of one acre to a depth of one foot) flowing into the Shark and Taylor sloughs through the F.C.D.’s floodgates and canals. Another 157,000 acre-feet flow naturally into the park’s western portion from the Big Cypress. Harking back to Assistant Secretary Warne’s first appeal to the Corps of Engineers, which has operational jurisdiction over F.C.D.’s waterworks, the National Park Service is again attempting to obtain from the corps and the state of Florida a binding guarantee that it will receive its minimum requirement of 315,000 acre-feet.