Moving Water in the Everglades Sends a Cascade of Consequences, Some Anticipated and Some Not

A half century after the Everglades were drained, the region’s population has soared to 8 million, and South Floridians are realizing they could run out of water very soon.

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Transition from Sawgrass to coastal habitat in Everglades National Park. Credit: National Park Service
Transition from Sawgrass to coastal habitat in Everglades National Park. Credit: National Park Service

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The following is an excerpt from Amy Green’s book, Moving Water: The Everglades and Big Sugar, published in 2021 by Johns Hopkins University Press. 

The water is brown but not muddy. Perhaps this surprises you. Perhaps you imagined mud. Thick, dense mud. Stagnant, suck-the-shoe-off-your-foot mud. Instead the water is clear. Peer into it, and you can see fish dart and turtles paddle. Often the water is described as tea-colored because, like tea, it is colored by leaves, most notably from cypress and pine trees. The water is cool, refreshing even on a hot day. It flows, an important fact for the Everglades. Sometimes the water is smooth as a mirror, reflecting the image of the verdant beauty surrounding it. Tall, leafy cypress trees. Shorter, stouter pond apple trees. When this occurs, you do not peer into the water but stand back and admire the Impressionist painting the water has created.

I once heard the famed photographer Clyde Butcher, known for his stark, black-and-white images of Florida’s wilderness, say he drinks the water right from the swamp. Imagine Santa Claus in the swamp and you can imagine Butcher, water up to his wide girth, shirt sleeves cuffed at his elbows, brimmed hat shading his white beard.

“We’ve drank out of the swamp, and I’m still here,” he said. I followed Butcher into the swamp, water reaching my hips. “This is so cool,” I said. But I did not drink the water.

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Moving water is tricky. By this I mean the feat of relocating water from one place to another. Shortening and straightening rivers. Draining lakes into the sea. The engineering is easy. We’ve done that for two centuries. But moving water is more complex than the fundamental task of disposing of it to make space for new homes and ignite a housing and agricultural boom, which is what early Floridians envisioned for South Florida and what they got. Moving water sends a cascade of consequences throughout an ecosystem as unique and diverse as the Everglades, some anticipated and some not.

When the Old Ingraham Highway opened in the early 1920s, it was the first to give Ford Model Ts access to the fishing village of Flamingo on Florida Bay near the peninsula’s southernmost tip. Hunters and moonshiners used the highway during the dry season as a route into the Everglades. During the rainy season the highway was often impassable. Parts of the highway were constructed on limestone dug from the sawgrass prairie by a dredge floating on barges. The Homestead Canal left behind by the dredge flowed parallel to the highway. Today remnants of the highway are part of the Anhinga Trail in Everglades National Park. The trail is among the park’s most popular, offering abundant views of wildlife including alligators, turtles, anhingas, herons, egrets, and many other birds, especially during winter.

After the highway opened Floridians noticed a change in the vegetation on the highway’s south side, where it crossed Taylor Slough. Carolina willow and pond apple flourished, while on the highway’s north side the sawgrass prairie remained. Floridians would discover that the highway served as a dam for the river of grass, altering the flow of water subtly but enough to alter the vegetation. Scientists still are not completely sure how this happens, says Tom Van Lent, senior scientist at the Everglades Foundation. They believe some of it has to do with nutrients. The Everglades are a low-nutrient ecosystem. The water flows slowly over a large land area, spreading nutrients thinly; and it may be that the Old Ingraham Highway concentrated nutrients in certain places, transforming the vegetation.

In an ecosystem as unique and diverse as the Everglades it is possible we have not yet experienced all of the consequences of moving water, and we can only wonder about the future. Sometimes our perception of consequences changes. Our values change, and we come to hold dear things we once hardly valued at all. A half century after the Everglades were drained, shrinking the river of grass by half, the region’s population has soared far beyond what early Floridians imagined. Demographers anticipated 2 million people in South Florida by the turn of the century. Today 8 million people live there, and forecasts are for the massive influx to continue. The population has grown so fast that South Floridians are realizing they could run out of water very soon.

“It may also be,” Van Lent says, “some things happened that we didn’t even notice happen, and they’re irretrievably gone.”

Everglades restoration means, again, moving water, and this is more complex than the fundamental task of acquiring land and removing dams. Restoration will lead to new consequences, some anticipated and some not. It is possible some of these consequences will require new acts of salvation, which in turn will lead to new consequences.

I met Mary Barely in 2008, a tumultuous time as the world economy was collapsing and the United States was about to elect its first Black president.

I was reporting on the latest development in one of the world’s most substantial efforts at ecological restoration. Florida’s governor had announced a $1.75 billion plan to buy out U.S. Sugar Corp., the nation’s largest producer of sugarcane, and put the land toward Everglades restoration. For generations sugar growers have worked the black earth south of Lake Okeechobee where the river of grass has been refashioned into millions of rows of sugarcane. The governor’s plan, bold as it was at the time, offered a huge advancement in decades of acrimony over the Everglades, which had frustrated multiple governors, influenced national elections, and given rise to a massive restoration. The governor’s idea: rather than move water, move the thing that is causing Floridians to move the water.

Mary Barley in Everglades National Park in 2008. Credit: Amy Green

I undertook an assignment for Newsweek on the Everglades Foundation, the powerful, little-known organization behind the governor’s plan. I phoned Mary Barley, the foundation’s chairwoman. Her husband, George Barley, had established the organization before perishing in 1995 in a plane crash while on his way to meet with the US Army Corps of Engineers about the Everglades. Mary described the plan as “the most stunning news since we started working on Everglades restoration.” I asked for some background information on the foundation, and in the space of two typed, single-spaced pages of notes Mary told her own story, which is also the story of the foundation.

Weeks later I was on my way to Mary’s Islamorada home, where I would spend two days on assignment for the Christian Science Monitor interviewing Mary in Islamorada and both her and Tom Van Lent in Everglades National Park. The drive from Orlando where I live is five hours, down the Florida Turnpike and through the Florida Keys on US 1. I listened in the car to news of the unfolding financial crisis. Lehman Brothers had filed for bankruptcy the day before. The presidential election was weeks away.

“The fundamentals of our economy are strong,” Republican John McCain declared from the campaign trail in Florida, and Democrat Barack Obama rushed to criticize his presidential rival for seeming a little out of touch with reality.

“He doesn’t get what’s happening between the mountain in Sedona where he lives and the corridors of Washington where he works,” Obama charged. “Why else would he say, today of all days, just a few hours ago, that the fundamentals of the economy are still strong? Senator, what economy are you talking about?”

McCain responded by softening his stance on the economy’s strength, explaining that while it was true the fundamentals were “threatened” and “at risk,” his previous statement had been meant as praise for the resilience of American workers.

“My opponents may disagree, but those fundamentals—the American worker and their innovation, their entrepreneurship, the small business—those are the fundamentals of America, and I think they’re strong,” McCain said from Orlando.

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I arrived in Islamorada in the early afternoon. I turned right off US 1, heading in the direction of Florida Bay and Barley Basin, named for George Barley years before during a festive ceremony. I drove beneath a pink canopy of blooming bougainvillea and parked my car in a gravel drive. I slammed the car door shut and left behind the financial crisis and presidential campaign. I walked past a shaded courtyard decorated with Buddhist ornaments and enclosed by a bamboo fence, where 5-inch-by-7-inch framed paintings hung. The paintings were the kind tourists buy for a few bucks, kitschy depictions of those things tourists love most about the Florida Keys. Roseate spoonbills, for instance, birds pink as flamingos. I rang the bell beside two large copper doors. Off to my right I could see Barley Basin, the same shade as the sky. Mary came to the door with a cacophony of Havanese, Shih Tzu, and Maltese-mix dogs. I was shown to Mary’s office, where we would have our first interview of my trip, in a small separate building of her 2,000-square-foot home, above a guest room. The office was small with a grand view of a pool, tiki bar, hammock, small boat and dock, and Barley Basin. Beyond the basin is Florida Bay and Everglades National Park, which Mary can see on bright days.

Mary wore a short-sleeved linen-colored shirt with cuffed sleeves, khaki slacks, and a large red beaded necklace. Her caramel-colored hair was cropped at her shoulders. Her manner was warm but guarded, direct, no-nonsense and intense. You didn’t immediately notice her 5-foot-1 stature. I could tell she was not your average environmentalist. She offered me a plastic, disposable bottle of water.

“Would I go and sit on top of a tree?” she said. “Probably not, because I know I could be more effective doing other things.”

Mary Barley explained that her and her husband’s Everglades advocacy was as much about addressing what they believed was government corruption as about saving the environment. She recalled a childhood of poverty in Wisconsin, where she grew up one of five siblings raised by a single mother on government assistance. She described her and George’s lobbying in Washington and Tallahassee and later her campaign for the office of commissioner of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“I think in the beginning we were pretty naive,” she said. Government leaders “are supposed to be servants of ours, and we are the ones who pay them, and I came from a very high-minded family, and we thought government did the right thing, and that was how we were raised. . . . They made roads, and they built schools, and they tried to help people like my mother who, we could not have survived without assistance. . . . It’s hard to really realize that that’s not how it is. The government is run by special interests and big contributions, and the bigger contributions you give the more likely you are to get what you need or what you want.”

Sawgrass in Everglades National Park. Credit: B.Call, National Park Service
Sawgrass in Everglades National Park. Credit: B.Call, National Park Service

I asked Mary about her nastiest political experience. She told me about an ad that had aired during her campaign for agriculture commissioner. The ad described her as “barely a Democrat.”

“I think it was the nastiest because, what did that have to do with what I was doing?” she asked. “I think that sticks in my mind because it was effective. It kind of shows you how uninformed the public is about the issues instead of the personality. I see that a lot in what is happening right now. The issues are so different than the personality, and people want to concentrate on that part of you and not on what’s good for them. It still amazes me to this day, now that I know more about politics, how little the public knows about what they should vote for themselves. They can be swayed really by the most silly arguments. What difference does it make? If you want good public policy you should [elect] the people who are willing to do the right thing, whether they’re Republican or Democrat. It should be about who’s going to do what’s right for the public and have the willpower to go beyond the special interests. . . .

“Within that context is, you’re out there trying to get the government to do the will of the people, and that’s hard for people to understand. They always think if you’re doing something you’re doing it for yourself first. . . . That’s not my gig. Of all the places I thought I’d end up in my life it was not politics. . . .

“Sometimes I think in profound ways about why it is so hard to get people to want to help and why don’t they understand. What is it that we’re missing to get them to understand that if we can save [the Everglades] we can probably save any place. It’s just our political will, and we don’t really have it because we have so many messages that the public doesn’t even know what’s good for them anymore. They’re just like in this, tossed around in this washing machine going, OK, what’s important today?”

I asked Mary whether she enjoyed politics. “It’s first a big responsibility, and then I’ve been blessed and I need to give back, and part of that, of giving back, is giving back to what made you feel blessed, and to me that is the state of Florida,” she said.

“I feel very comfortable in trying to do that.”

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