The most significant challenge facing the Everglades today
Historically, the Everglades used to cover most of South Florida, stretching from present day Orlando all the way south to the Florida Keys. Water from the Kissimmee River would fill Lake Okeechobee and then flow south into the River of Grass. But sadly, this is no longer what the Everglades looks like.
For about the past 7000 years, rain has fallen on the Kissimmee basin and flowed south into the lake. Humans have changed the timing of inflows, and maybe increased the volume a bit, and agriculture has certainly polluted that water, but it flows more or less the same today. But south of the lake, nothing works at all like it did. The Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) is now the only source of water for the Everglades, and it’s polluted. So, the focus is on repairing what has been profoundly modified, and putting it back into some semblance of how it used to work.
Today, water can no longer freely flow south from Lake Okeechobee, and the Everglades Agricultural Area, owned mostly by subsidized sugar companies, sits right where the River of Grass used to begin. The water in Lake O has been contaminated with all kinds of nutrients from agricultural fertilizers, like nitrogen and phosphorus, so much that the water in the lake is considered far too polluted to be sent directly on to the Everglades like it used to.
Instead, we hold all this polluted water in Lake Okeechobee until the water levels become so high that trillions of gallons of polluted water have to be dumped down the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers and out into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Not only is this a waste of precious freshwater, but it also damages our coastal estuaries, kills fish, and contributes to toxic Red Tide and sends toxic blue-green algae into our waterways, endangering nearly 8 million Floridians up and down the coast.
Meanwhile, The Everglades and Florida Bay, the headwaters of the Florida Keys, are desperate for clean freshwater. Everglades National Park receives less than half of the water it once did, and what’s left of the historic River of Grass will run dry if it doesn’t get more water soon.
So why can’t we just clean all of this extra water and send it south to where it belongs? Well, we’ve been trying.