Water in south Florida once flowed freely from the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee and southward over low-lying lands to the estuaries of Biscayne Bay, the Ten Thousand Islands, and Florida Bay. This shallow, slow-moving sheet of water covered almost 11,000 square miles, creating a mosaic of ponds, sloughs, sawgrass marshes, hardwood hammock, and forested uplands. For thousands of years this intricate system evolved into a finely balanced ecosystem that formed the biological infrastructure for the southern half of the state.
Early colonial settlers and land developers viewed the Everglades as a worthless swamp in need of reclamation. The dream of draining the swampland took hold in the first half of the 1800s. By the 1880s developers started digging drainage canals, which took place without an understanding of the dynamics of the ecosystem and were generally inadequate for the task. They caused localized silting problems, but overall the ecosystem was resilient enough to sustain itself.
The notion of draining the vast wetland persisted. Expanded dredging efforts between 1905 and 1910 transformed large tracts from wetland to agricultural land. This abundance of "new" land stimulated the first of several south Florida land booms. Railroads constructed by entrepreneurs like Henry B. Plant and Henry M. Flagler made the region more accessible and attractive to tourists. By the 1920s visitors and new residents flocked to blossoming towns like Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Fort Myers. As they arrived, developers cut more canals and built new roads. To ensure good ocean views, they removed mangroves from the shorelines and replaced them with palm trees. Little by little canals, roads, and buildings displaced native habitats.
The year 1948 marked an even greater change when Congress authorized the Central and South Florida Project. This involved the construction of an elaborate system of roads, canals, levees, and water-control structures stretching throughout South Florida. Constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers, and sponsored by the Central and Southern Flood Control District (later redesignated the South Florida Water Management District), the project purposes were to provide water and flood protection for urban and agricultural lands, a water supply for Everglades National Park, the preservation of fish and wildlife habitat, facilitate navigation and recreation, and the prevention of salt water intrusion. While the project still provides many of the intended benefits, the alteration of regional wetland areas, estuaries, and bays — combined with increasing population pressures and changing land uses — has significantly degraded the natural system.
Today 50% of south Florida’s original wetland areas no longer exist. The numbers of wading birds, such as egrets, herons, and ibises, have been reduced by 90%. Entire populations of animals, including the manatee, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, the Miami blackheaded snake, the wood stork, and the Florida panther, are at risk of disappearing. Exotic pest plants such as melaleuca, Brazilian pepper, and Australian pine have invaded natural areas, choking out native plants and altering habitats. Massive die-offs of seagrass beds in Florida Bay have been followed by the extensive losses of wading birds, fish, shrimp, sponges, and mangroves. These grim indicators warn of a system under assault and in jeopardy of collapse.