Other Environmental Themes

The River of Grass

A shallow sheet of water, 60 miles wide and 100 miles long, called "the river of grass" once flowed lazily from Lake Okeechobee to the tip of the Florida peninsula. But starting in the 1920s, water was diverted from this vast swamp for flood control purposes, as well as to support an agricultural boom and growing population. Although it is still the largest single wetland system in the continental United States, the Everglades is now half its former size and has lost about 90 percent of its wading bird population, with dozens of other animals and plants on the brink of extinction. The Army Corps of Engineers, which was largely responsible for the decimation of the Everglades in the 20th century, is the lead agency in an $8 billion effort to restore a more natural flow to the region - the most ambitious and expensive environmental restoration project ever initiated.

The rescue mission is quite elaborate, and questions have been raised as to what it will accomplish. Under the current plan, the Corps will remove about 250 miles of levees and canals, out of the 1000 mile network it constructed, to allow more water to pass over the thirsty wetlands. To prevent flooding, the Corps will create 18 reservoirs. In addition, 300 wells will be drilled to pump up to 6 billion liters of freshwater per day into aquifers near Lake Okeechobee.

Critics argue that this Byzantine arrangement may afford little ecological benefits over the currently dismal state of affairs. Restoring some of the natural flow is good, they say, but the plan doesn't go far enough. The only real solution is to rip up the dikes, fill in the levees, and let the river of grass flow once again.

The political realities, of course, are more complex, as the project is not only designed for the purposes of ecological restoration but also to meet the water needs in South Florida where the population is expected to expand by two million within a decade. Given all the development that has ensued in the region over the past century for farms, housing and hotels, returning the Everglades to its original, pristine state is not within the realm of possibility. It seems that the best that can be hoped for in this case is a compromise: a little water for us, a little water for them. Although compromise is a conventional solution in the affairs of humans, it remains to be seen whether a delicate ecosystem that has been despoiled for decades can actually flourish under such terms.