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Watching Florida Change and Drain

by Stephanie Gladwell about a year ago in Sustainability
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How development has reshaped the peninsula and a closer look at how we define “progress.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, Florida was one of the least population-dense states in the union. Except for the coast, the state was almost uninhabited. Some places, like St. Augustine, attracted snowbirds from the north and Europe, and sport fishing was beginning to attract anglers from the other states and abroad.

But the population didn’t really start growing until WWII.

This is when the military set up numerous bases for the Army and Navy, and hundreds of thousands of troops flooded into Florida for training. Coupled that with the growing popularity of air conditioning, and Florida was no longer just a haven for those willing to live in harsher climates to escape winter. This humid peninsula became a “paradise” to live in twelve months a year.

Sadly, as the population expanded, so did the destruction of this unique and pristine environment.

Along the coast, developers began building on and near the beach. A little-known fact is that because Florida’s beaches were not the sandy delights of today, they had to truck in sand from other parts of the state. And the sand didn’t stay where they put it. The natural pull of tides and waves slowly moved it from where house-builders and residents wanted it. To keep sand from escaping, channels were built and the loud, unsightly, and damaging practice of dredging began.

Of course, anglers wanted easier access to ‘big game’ fish. So, channels were cut through barrier islands to make lakes and access points to the ocean.

Bodies of water that had been brackish into saltwater, completely changing the ecosystem. This became part of the Intracoastal Waterway, which runs the length of Florida’s Atlantic Coast. Despite its intention to improve fishing, these channels disrupted the mangroves and beds of seagrass that are the nurseries to many of the fish species that sport fishermen like to catch.

Then add more development--the sea walls that replaced mangroves, storm sewer runoff, the breaking of sewer lines that dumped millions of gallons of wastewater, and drainage canals with all sorts of chemicals and garbage that drained from the roadways. Furthermore, money-hungry developers wanted land, and built so fast that roads and schools couldn’t keep up.

So wetlands were drained and homes, condos, and apartments were built up and down the coast.

The Kissimmee River flowed south in a serpentine course that the Army Corps of Engineers straightened.

Lake Okeechobee was encircled with a dyke to keep the floodwaters from spreading at the onset of the rainy season each year. The sheet flow from the Lake Okeechobee that at one time headed south into Florida Bay was diverted to water sugar cane and such crops.

“Progress.” They say.

Well, I say “not really.”

The Kissimmee River flowed south straight as an arrow carrying excess runoff filled with nutrients that were a by-product of the cattle industry which caused algae blooms in Lake Okeechobee. The original levee caused the death of over 3,000 residents of Belle Glade during the 1928 hurricane, so the levee walls were raised. The fact that the lake now had set borders meant that the lake didn’t expand and destroyed the spawning grounds of bass, bream and catfish, spoiling what had been a thriving industry since the early 1900s. It also cut off the source of water for the Everglades which started to slowly change the ecosystem of one of nature’s unique habitats.

Now, the Army Corps of Engineers is working to get the Kissimmee back inside its original banks. The only problem is that the cost is enormous.

The Federal Government and the State of Florida are spending billions to restore the sheet flow to the Everglades, and it is doubtful if it will ever be completed, and if it is, will it be successful? The Army Corps of Engineers is working on the Hoover Dyke, reinforcing the banks so there won’t be another breach like 1928. And to be safe, when the water level gets too high, they release water down the St. Lucie Canal and the Caloosahatchee River, which has been causing algae blooms on both coasts.

All while freshwater from Lake Okeechobee is flowing into brackish lagoons on Florida’s east and west coasts (ruining them as it does so), freshwater is being pulled up from the aquifer for city plumbing all along the coast.

Of course, people need to drink and bathe, but they also need large amounts of water for lawns and golf courses. Granted much of the irrigation water is drawn from shallow wells and doesn’t affect the deeper aquifer that most municipalities get their water from, but it still is taking water from the ground and allowing saltwater from the ocean to slowly contaminate wells close to the coast.

Florida, and similar areas around the world, need to redefine the word “progress” and work harder to develop with sustainability in mind.

Progress just isn’t building more, bigger, and better. Progress should be building and balancing quality of life with sustainability. Designing yards to need less water. Finding passive ways to reduce air conditioning costs. Growing more fruits and vegetables as part of the landscaping. Designing communities that can be walked or biked.

Ecosystems around the globe are complex. And it is difficult, if not impossible, to foresee what effects people and development might have on the natural world. So, to be safe, as the population expands, development should be designed to have as little impact on the environment as possible.

If people decide that they want to leave a better planet for their kids and grandkids, they will begin to see the wisdom in the saying, “Live simply, so that others may simply live.”

Sustainability

About the author

Stephanie Gladwell

Mother of two, educator of many. Teaches middle-school biology and chemistry. Always interested in exploring the unknown.

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