On the Everglades Part I: Geography needed to understand massive changes to an ecosystem
You need to care about the Everglades. I know, some of you are reading this from different continents, and I'm posting about something in my backyard, as I live in the Everglades watershed. But you need to care. The Everglades is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world. Moreover, what's South of them is also quite important. Studies were done of coral reefs in the entire world, using high throughput DNA sequencing to assess uniqueness. Every major organism--plant, alga, protozoa, fish, etc--had close relatives in virtually every other reef ecosystem in the world. Except in Florida. 30% of our species were unique, found nowhere else in the world.
I drive every day on the major reason why parts of the Everglades ecosystem is dying: route 41, also known as Tamiami Trail. Okay, the part I drive on isn't the critical part. Route 41 goes south from Tampa to Naples, and I usually drive on the southern stretch of that. But then it veers east and goes all the way across the state to Miami. Built in 1928, the road acts as a dam, holding back water that would naturally flow south. When very few lived here, authorities just let the road flood whenever it rained, but that severely damaged the road. Instead, the water management districts now keep the level of water in Lake Okeechobie low, so flow through the Everglades is sufficiently light to not to flood out Tamiami Trail.
This year, rain has been incessant, leading to levels of flooding unprecedented for the "dry" season. The water has to go somewhere. North of route 41, tree islands are being submerged. These tree islands are essential for large animals like alligators to live, which is ironic, because in the water-starved Eastern Everglades, these same animals south of route 41 are dying from lack of water. Miccosukee Indian lands are also under water.
But with flow from the Kissimmee basin (south of Orlando) into Lake Okeechobee at three times the rate that Lake O empties, the water had to go somewhere. Up to this week, the choice was to send it west through the Caloosahatchie River and East through the Saint Lucie River. The rate of flow in the last week or two was so great that it kicked up enormous amout of dirt, turning the rivers brown. The Saint Lucie is hardly a river anymore--the oxbows, meandering turns that allow deposition of silt--were straightened into a canal at the same time that a new canal was built to connect Lake O to the Caloosahatchie. And not much seems to be deposited by the largely straight Caloosahatchie either.
What's new as of this week is that it looks like phase one of the long delayed Everglades Restoration Project, delayed because George W. Bush finked out on a deal made between his brother Jeb (who was governor of Florida at the time) and Bill Clinton (who was President) for joint federal-state funding, is getting its first test. There is a one mile raised section of route 41 just West of Miami. Water will now flow under that bridge, into the Eastern Everglades, and out into Florida Bay.
That's the news summary and the background geography needed to understand the environmental concerns here. If I continued this blog post to cover them, it would be too long, and you'd all stop reading. So I'll end with a summation of the take-home: Kissimmee basin water flows into Lake O and then flows in a politically regulated fashion west through the Caloosahatchie into the Gulf of Mexico and east through the Saint Lucie River and Saint Lucie Estuary into the Atlantic Ocean, leaving only a trickle to flow south into the Everglades and stop at the east-west section of route 41. But now, a bridge will open, and some water will flow south into the southern parts of the Everglades. If more bridges are constructed as originally intended in the Bush/Clinton agreement, historic levels of water flow can be restored.