Losing the Glades: Everglades Drainage and Restoration

The exhibition Surviving to Thriving: An Everglades Economy is opening in October at the Museum.  One of the many topics evaluated in the exhibit is the effects of Everglades drainage and restoration on the Seminole Tribe and South Florida in general.  Although I was familiar with the topic when I started developing interviews for the audio tour, I did not know enough about the everglades ecosystem or the laws that shaped Everglades restoration.  In order to understand better, I undertook hours of research and several Oral History interviews. 

            The Everglades, as an ecosystem, is only about 5,000 years old and spans from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  The land is flat, has virtually no shade, and the ecosystem is very fragile.  The Everglades’ elevation is at its highest at Lake Okeechobee, about 30 feet, and declines from the lake to Florida’s tip.  Craig Tepper, the Seminole Tribe’s Water Resource Management Director, explained to me in an Oral History interview that the decline in elevation allows for the water to run from the south banks of Lake Okeechobee out to the ocean.  The water runs slowly over blocks of limestone, created from thousands of years of shellfish build-up, Tepper explained.  The limestone, being one of the elements that makes the Everglades so fragile, is porous and allows for aquifers to recharge and wildlife to be mobile under the surface.  The Everglades are also fragile because they naturally lack phosphorus.  Unfortunately, explained Tepper, run-off from various agricultural enterprises has introduced phosphorus into the ecosystem, which helps exotic plants such as cattail, melaleuca, nephthytis, and Brazilian pepper trees to thrive and overtake native plants. 

Nephthyytis in the cypress dome behind Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki.

            In 1904, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward “declared war” on the Everglades.  He promised to drain the Everglades and turn it into a bustling metropolis.  He did not accomplish his goal, but the “Broward Era” certainly started the ball rolling on Everglades drainage.  The State of Florida made many attempts from 1905 until recent years to tame the Everglades.  In 1926 and 1928, devastating hurricanes blew over Florida killing an estimated 2,500 people.  After such devastation, the US Army Corp of Engineers took over Everglades drainage in the interest of public safety.  They erected huge levees around Lake Okeechobee and carved out more canals and retention ponds.  Then, in 1947, mother nature fought back again dropping hundreds of inches of rain, naturally reclaiming her lost lands.  The US Army Corp of Engineers fought back again, re-carving the canals and ponds.  The US Army Corp of Engineers even released a movie called “Waters of Destiny” showing how they would “drain” the Everglades.  (The video can be viewed at the Florida Memory Project: http://www.floridamemory.com/photographiccollection/video/video.cfm?VID=30.)  Finally in 1948, Congress passed and adopted the Central and Southern Florida Project (C&SF), Florida’s first comprehensive water management program.   (South Florida Water Management District timeline: https://my.sfwmd.gov/portal/page/portal/common/pdf/history/timeline_panel_1_8.pdf). 

            Everglades drainage, and current efforts to restore the landscape, have made a large impact on Seminole lands.  In an interview I conducted with a Seminole man who is 80 years old, he pointed to a ring on a tree and said, “The water used to come up to here.  It has not been that high since I was a small boy.”  In the 1920s and onward, canoe trails the Seminoles depended on to move trade items dried up, wildlife and game slowly disappeared, and the growing Florida population encroached on what was once Seminole land.  Reservations were granted to the Seminoles in 1938 by the State of Florida in Big Cypress, Brighton, and Hollywood, but the grant of land did not assist in helping the Seminoles as they watched their means of living through trade and hunting, the Everglades, retract from its natural flow.  

            In 1991, the Florida legislature passed the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Everglades Protection Act, which called for Everglades Restoration.  Then, in May of 2000, the State of Florida passed appropriations to fund half of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).  (CERP timeline: http://www.dep.state.fl.us/evergladesforever/about/timeline.htm)  In January of 2000, the Seminole Tribe of Florida signed an agreement with the US Army Corp of Engineers, which helped to clean 1.7 billion gallons of water that flow into the Everglades everyday.  It was the first of many projects the Seminole Tribe has participated in. 

            On September 13, 2002 in testimony of the Seminole Tribe of Florida to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, the Tribe declared, “Now, in 2002, the Seminole Tribe contributes to the protection of the Everglades ecosystem.  Our people are willing participants in this massive restoration undertaking.  The Big Cypress Critical Restoration Project is an integral part of the overall ecosystem restoration.  We look forward to our neighbors and all stakeholders continuing to make the necessary commitment to restoring the South Florida ecosystem through CERP implementation and other programs.  Without such a commitment, restoration will not be achieved.” 

Scenery on the boardwalk


Recommended Reading:

Majory Stoneman Douglas, The Everglades: River of Grass.  Pineapple Press: Sarasota, 2007. 

Michael Grunwald, The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and Politics of Paradise.  Simon and Schuster: New York, 2006.

South Florida Water Management District.  Discover a Watershed: The Everglades.  The Watercourse: Bozeman, MT, 1996.


Author: Elizabeth Lowman

I am the Education and Oral History Coordinator at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Seminole Museum. I completed my Masters in History at the University of North Florida in 2007 and my BA in History and Political Science at the University of Tampa in 2005. I do my best to assist other Native Oral History Programs around the country and present at National conferences on the topics of native oral history, ethics, methodologies, and archives.

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