The Everglades are drowning in their own tears

By Dexter Lehtinen

Dexter Lehtinen, a former U.S. attorney, filed the original Everglades lawsuit against the state and South Florida Water Management District and now represents the Miccosukee Indian Tribe.

A tragedy is unfolding in the Florida Everglades. The heart of the Everglades, the 752 square miles of fresh water Everglades prairie marsh, studded with tree islands and teeming in biodiversity, known as Water Conservation Area 3-A is drowning. And once its tree islands are washed away and its biodiversity trans­formed into a dull monocul­ture, once the area is dead, it cannot be brought back to life.


In December 1999. a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission representative concluded that the conservation area "has degraded more in the last five years than in the entire 40 years before." The threat comes from destructive, high-water levels due to closing the gates along Tamiami Trail and bad water-management policies.


Does anyone care? Will anyone act?


The legal responsibility for protecting this precious resource rests with several state agencies. Ideally the federal government should care as well. Therein lies another prob­lem: The federal government doesn't care, because it doesn't own the conservation area, even though the Everglades within it and within Everglades National Park compose the "River of Grass."

The state agencies responsible for the conservation area include the governor and Cabinet sitting as trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund (it holds the legal title), the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (it's responsible for managing wildlife resources) and the South Florida Water Management District (it's supposed to manage the water). But, in fact, the Central Everglades is an orphan, a beautiful child with unlimited potential but not worth the political trouble of fighting for.


No one expresses the belief that the conservation area isn't worth protecting. No one says that the Central Everglades should die. But all know that the current high-water levels will kill it, and no one will take responsibility for saving it.

We know, of course, that Water Conservation Area 3-A is not a living being, but from the air it appears so - a beauti­ful living creature struggling in a snare set by a twin sister, Everglades National Park.


Only a metaphor? Rain comes naturally in the Everglades ecosystem like tears; and rain, like tears, flows away naturally. But, if blocked, tears build to deadly levels. That's what's happening: The conser­vation area is drowning in its own tears.


There is no flood-protection, human health, or property right reason for holding the water back. Officials simply have found that they can use the artificial barriers along Tamiami Trail to protect the park, requiring Conservation Area 3-A to absorb any natural events or conditions that they don't like.


The conservation area and park were once one, but that relationship is now denied and disavowed as if the conservation area were some distant, no account relative. The Department of the Interior uses the bridges and gates along Tamiami Trail to hold water levels artificially low south of the trail in the park and artificially high north of the trail.


This is being done so that about 10 percent of a subspecies of a bird that moved into

the artificially dry area (away from its 1977 officially declare "critical habitat") will not have to move again. Artificial, unnatural conditions are created in the name of "nature."


It wouldn't take much to save the Central Everglades: Just pull the plugs that block the flow of water, just open the drains, open the gates. The urban and agricultural areas to the east and west would not be harmed. In fact, flood protection would be improved because the water would flow through the Everglades naturally, where it belongs.


The Central Everglades needs a leader who, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln describing the Mississippi, will enable "the mighty river to once again flow unvexed to the sea."


The above article was reproduce with the permission of the author.

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