Chapters
Water

From ‘Nuisance’ to Treasure

By Jack E. Davis

I. From Nuisance to Treasure Strife, Beauty Haunt the Everglades

Off and on for…four hundred years the region now called The Everglades -Marjory Stoneman Douglas, 1947

In the epic of tri-masted galleons and European explores, when the Spanish, English, and French commanded the western seas and set out to conquer the so-called New World, the Everglades remained a mysterious place. Indeed, to the white man, it remained desolate. The indigenous people of the Glades thrived along the fringes of Pa-hay-okee, means grassy – water,” hunting and gathering along trails they cut through hammocks and saw grass into the interior. But Spanish map makers knew nothing of the region and inscribed across a vacant outline of South Florida the words, El Laguno del Espiritu Santo, The Lagoon of the Sacred Spirit. Pedro Menendez de Avilés, the first white man to explore South Florida with purpose, was not so complimentary. He assessed it as very poor land, subject to inundation-” The Spanish valued the New World for its commodities: gold, silver, and, in the case of Menendez, marketable staple crops. But the Everglades had only water—6,200 square miles of it.

It would not become an agricultural empire for another 400 years, after technology was capable of turning water into land. By the early 20th century, enterprising capitalists had begun reaping dividends from what lay “under the bondage of inundation,” a rich peaty muck that yielded “good, big healthy” fruits and vegetables, and the sweetest though most controversial product of all, sugar cane. How one viewed the water of the Everglades, as something to master or to leave wild and free-moving, depended on what one did, where and when one lived, and how one saw the world. At the same time that tomatoes were growing fat and sugar cane tall, naturalists, conservationists, and scientists were attaching a life-generating importance to wetlands. And there was none so unique and so expansive as the Everglades. Then in 1947, author Marjory Stoneman Douglas complicated matters even more when she revealed to the world in her first book that the swamp at the bottom of the Florida peninsula was no swamp at all, but a discreetly unassuming river that flowed with quiet determination and bountiful life.

Enlarge

Tamiami Trail 12
Tamiami Trail 12

Courtesy of Clyde Butcher.

Swamps have historically evoked a different meaning in the Anglo-American cultural imagination than have rivers. In Western tradition, miasmic waters masked “a thousand horrors”; they were the locus of evil things and evil doings. Before Douglas redefined the Everglades, it was abhorred for what it was perceived to be, an inhospitable place crawling with poisonous snakes and, according to one 19th-century account, alligators “so thick you can walk across on their heads.” The grassy water was all but impenetrable, therefore unknowable, and ultimately thought worthless. Treachery surely lurked within. The U.S. military believed as much when, during the Third Seminole War in the l850s, its astute quarry retreated into the “natural fortress.” In his Everglades fable Lost Man’s River, Peter Matthiessen constructs a vivid image of the Seminole’s interior refuge: “Of the half-hidden dangers which in the nineteenth century sapped the spirit of the U.S. Army…what remained were the dark, tall scythes of toothed saw grass and the poison tree call manchineel, the treacherous muck pools and jagged solution holes in the skeletal limestone, the insect swarms which could drive lost generations to insanity…the thick water moccasins, opening their cotton mouths like deadly blossoms, and the coral snakes and diamondbacks on the high ground.”

The realities of human nature, however, are such that the very thing that repulsed also attracted. In 1847, the U.S. Senate commissioned Buckingham Smith to conduct a “reconnaissance” of the Everglades. Describing the water as surprisingly “pure and limpid,” Smith reported to his solicitors that “a person of romantic imagination” would likely discover something in the “Ever Glades” that “indulges his fancies.” Bitt “a man of practical, utilitarian turn of thought” would he struck first by its “utter worthlessness to civilized man” emphasis his. Smith’s recommendation for the uncivilized swamp could be summed up in one word: drainage.

Although Smith was a lawyer by profession and a scientist by sport, his report influenced public policy that persisted until recent years, policy that treated water as an over-abundant resource, a veritable nuisance. The reality that the Everglades was a living sanctuary bestowing the consecrated necessities of life—water, food, and shelter—to an extraordinary array of wildlife failed to register any significance with policymakers sworn to commercial interests. That nonhuman species of the world had patiently adapted to and depended on the region’s two essential seasons, rainy and dry, mattered to but a few.

Enlarge

MarjoryStonemanDouglas
Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Courtesy of State Archives of Florida.

Those few were drawn to the Everglades for what it was as a watery mass and not for what it might become. Some of the country’s most important naturalists and ornithologists flocked to South Florida’s “region of mystery” in the early 20th century in the hope of finding a place that was, in the words of botanist John Kunkel Small, “unspoiled yet by the white man.” Small and his like-minded colleagues were ultrasensitive to the environmental consequences of drainage. They reserved their deepest lament for the stilt-legged seabirds-herons, egrets, ibises, wood storks, spoonbills, and flamingos—which drainage and plume hunting had reduced from literally millions to mere thousands. The flamingo had disappeared completely. Too few people appreciated the value of the birds’ industry, how day after day they lived and worked in the integrated ecofactory beside reptiles, fish, and terrestrial mammals producing the widgets of a balanced and self-sustaining community. But in the tradition of the original countryman—the independent farmer—the human species sought instead the products of the soil. Land, not water, had been the source of American liberty and, to be sure, economic potential. Buckingham Smith’s Everglades report proposed adding a million arable acres to the existing national inventory. Hamilton Disston, a rich Philadelphian who bought those million acres and more in 1881, executed the first attempts at drainage, failed to turn a profit, and then shot himself.

One of the men destined to resurrect Disston’s initiative was Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward 1905-1909. The former tugboat captain most likely loved water, but he believed that it had its proper place in civilized society. Water was to flow in rivers and canals as avenues of transportation and in ditches as irrigation for crops. The steam-powered dredge gave him the technology to direct the liquid prairie down a maze of canals to where he wanted, which was to the ocean. “Water,” he was fond of saying, “will run downhill.”

But would it? The so-called Broward era is forever tainted for having fostered the deceit of selling “land by the gallon.” To pay for the reclamation project, both the state and hucksterish swamp salesmen pawned off hundreds of thousands of acres of submerged land that never surfaced to meet the plow. Broward and others had overplayed their hand against nature.

Skillet Strand
Skillet Strand

Courtesy of Clyde Butcher.

Then the Army Corps of Engineers stepped in with reinforcements. The Corps had long before institutionalized the subjugation of nature, in particular water, and had been poking around in the Everglades since the 19th century for something to do. That something came with a string of now-legendary hurricanes from 1926 to 1947, which unleashed killing floods. If unmanaged water threatened progress of the Broward kind, water completely out of control threatened civilization itself. In the name of flood control, and with the well-wishing of waterlogged citizens, the Corps set out to dam, dike, channel, and drain with the determination of a landing force striving to overwhelm its enemy. It made no difference that Douglas had just published her seminal work The Everglades: River of Grass and that President Truman dedicated Everglades National Park in the first such honor for a wetland. Corps engineers, whom Douglas would one day describe as frustrated men whose mothers had quashed their childhood fetish for playing in the mud, exercised their will in an Everglades replumbing project that surpassed in expense and mind boggling complexity all others like it, and that finally fulfilled the commercial dreams of Disston and Broward.

divider

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK 60TH ANNIVERSARY

December 6th, 2007 marked the 60th anniversary of the dedication of Everglades National Park. Three decades before “environment” became a household word, the Everglades was a new kind of national park, established for new and different reasons. Listen to this report by Florida Humanities Council Producer, Bill Dudley. First published January 2008.

divider

The Everglades was no longer a fetid swamp by definition, but neither could it qualify as a free-flowing river. It became a managed environment. The Corps’ master project allowed all the water of the Everglades to come under the control of the South Florida Water Management District SFWMD. The spoils did not stop there. The sum of 500,000 acres of freshly drained land and an unlimited supply of water went to private agricultural interests, mostly sugar cane. As if to mock the meaning and purpose of nature protection, the Everglades Agricultural Area EAA was constructed, like a dam, between Everglades National Park and its principal water source, Lake Okeechobee. During a four-year drought in the 1960s, SFWMD released no water to the park and yet the EAA never wanted, even while the Corps sent billions of gallons down its canals to the Atlantic.

People began to notice. There was too much water in South Florida, and yet not enough. At a time in the l960s and 1970s when citizens’ groups across the country were organizing to protect the environment, Douglas and others created a coalition organization, WATER!, to ensure that bureaucrats protected the lifeblood of the Everglades and the needs of the South Florida population. Douglas’ most vigorous ally was Arthur Marshal, the principal founder of WATER! and a University of Miami ecologist. Marshall advanced his “rain machine” thesis, which attributed South Florida’s extraordinary droughts and microclimatic changes to decreased evaporation resulting from wetlands drainage and concreted urban sprawl. His thesis carried the authority of science, yet it did not represent an altogether new observation. In 1906, Frank Stoneman, Douglas’ father and founding editor of the Miami Herald, charged that draining a body of water the size of the Everglades would bring drought and cooler winter weather. The argument failed to catch on, although his naturalist contemporaries speculated that the region was “being drained…to such an extent that it will soon become a desert.”

Such worries finally registered with policymakers late in the century. The old water-abatement attitudes of swamp days became impracticable in an era when South Florida was being inundated by a new source, people. In 1979, the Environmental Protection Agency declared the Biscayne Aquifer, which is recharged by the Everglades, as the sole drinking-water source for thirsty South Floridians (6 million today). An onrush of protective legislation for this valued natural resource followed before Congress in 2000 passed the unprecedented $7.8-billion Everglades Restoration Act, which is designed to reconstruct a hydrology that will better benefit nature. Upbeat observers say the extraordinary expenditure reaffirms the Everglades’ status as a national treasure and represents a new national commitment to wetlands protection.

If the Everglades is a national treasure, it is a politicized one. Gubernatorial and presidential candidates, donning wilderness wear, now visit the River of Grass to certify their environmental sensibilities. Yet environmentalists remain skeptical, pointing out that the Restoration Act leaves the EAA intact and protects agribusiness’ habit of consuming and polluting water.

A century and a half ago, Florida was half wet, a virtual swamp itself, and South Florida even more so. The state hurriedly fell in lockstep with the rest of the nation, which has drained or filled 53 percent of its wetlands. And the swamp that would be a river runs today at half its original capacity. However genuine, the nation’s relatively recent commitment to wetlands first required that the swamp be redefined as a river and that the river be wrested under control. From natural nuisance to natural resource to national treasure, water in the Everglades has flowed along a circuitous course and continues on toward an uncertain destination.

II. Everglades National Park 60th Anniversary Audio Program

divider

December 6th, 2007 marked the 60th anniversary of the dedication of Everglades National Park. Three decades before “environment” became a household word, the Everglades was a new kind of national park, established for new and different reasons. Listen to this report by Florida Humanities Council Producer, Bill Dudley. First published January 2008.

divider

JACK E. DAVIS, professor of history at the University of Florida. Dr. Davis is the author of An Everglades Providence: Marjory Stoneman Douglas and the American Environmental Century (2009), which received the gold medal in the nonfiction category of the Florida Book Awards.

read more: