That project was meant to control flooding along the
Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee, in the south-central
part of the state. During the rainy months in summer and fall,
the river and the broad, shallow lake often overflowed, flooding
surrounding areas. The spillage would travel slowly southward
across southern Florida in a broad sheet and eventually drain
into Florida Bay, an open water body between the mainland
and the Florida Keys. During the journey, some of the water
would seep into the ground, replenishing the Biscayne Aquifer, a limestone layer that underlies much of the southeastern
part of the state.
But the recurrent flooding made the land
uninhabitable and farming impossible. So with
Congress’ 1948 authorization, the U.S. Army
Corps of Engineers built a complex system of
levees, canals and reservoirs to control the floods
and channel water away from farmlands south of
Lake Okeechobee and from growing population
centers. Three large “water conservation areas”
were constructed to collect and store water during high rainfall
events and release it in times of drought. The remaining wetlands — encompassing about half of their original area — were
enclosed into two protected areas, Everglades National Park
and Big Cypress National Preserve.
Such an intensive overhaul of South Florida’s water cycle
led, perhaps inevitably, to new problems. Reducing the
amount of freshwater that naturally heads south into the
Everglades proved destructive to the habitats of plants and
animals. Wading bird populations, for example, shrank by
90 percent over the last century. Diverting the water away from
its natural overland course also meant less water was available
to replenish the Biscayne Aquifer, which provides drinking
water to 3 million people.
Agriculture is big business in Florida; the state’s exports
total more than $4 billion each year. But fertilizer from the
agricultural regions pollutes waterways feeding into Lake
Okeechobee, causing algal blooms in the lake. Regulated dis-
charges from the lake to control flooding shunt polluted water
to the east, west and south, causing periodic algal blooms on
the coasts and in Florida Bay.
Hoping to undo some of the damage, Congress approved
a 35-year, $10.5 billion project in 2000 to send
more freshwater south into the river of grass.
That project, the Comprehensive Everglades
Restoration Plan, or CERP, remains the largest
hydrologic restoration project ever undertaken
in the United States.
CERP has shown signs of success. The National
Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine,
which evaluates the progress of Everglades resto-
ration every two years, reported in 2016 that freshwater flow
through the Everglades has indeed increased since the project
began. And in some areas, groundwater levels and vegetation
are beginning to return to how they looked before the exten-
sive water management began.
But the academy’s 2016 report also pointed to a glaring
problem. Researchers know a lot more about the effects of
climate change now than they did in 2000. Without account-
ing for these effects, particularly rising sea levels, the restora-
tion plan will not be able to meet its intended goals: restoring
the wetlands and buffering inhabited areas against Florida’s
intensely fluctuating hydrologic cycle.
“The ocean is
no longer an
It’s already in