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Allen's Blog

South Florida’s Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA)

E. Allen Stewart III P.E.—March 30, 2018

Discussion 5 of 5

Near and Far from Equilibrium, Significant Dependence upon Initial Conditions, "Seep and Creep" and the Curse of Dissolved Rocks

Summary: Over the 5,000 years prior to 1881, The Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades Ecological Amalgamation, or KOEEA, developed through a process known as ecological succession by responding to fluctuations in environmental conditions. These fluctuations in fact resulted in chaotic situations characterized by a significant dependence upon initial conditions. And while it may seem counter-intuitive, this chaos pushed the KOEEA into a higher level of complexity and self organization. Eventually the KOEAA found stability by moving into a condition known as near equilibrium, in which the rate of disruption associated with lost energy is close to zero.

Over the past 130 years, extensive disruption of the evolved sheet flow strategy of water management, also known as “Seep and Creep,” through the construction of an extensive canal network and placement of water control structures and dikes, combined with the influx of previously sequestered  phosphorus through dissolution of phosphate rock associated with regions of west central Florida, the KOEEA was forced from a more stable near equilibrium state to a less stable far from equilibrium state. A system far from equilibrium experiences a greater degree of chaos and hence encounters new stresses which provide opportunities for new complexities and self-organization. Therefore, these disruptions serve to reconfigure the KOEEA.

Unfortunately, in this reconfiguration, many of the benefits and resources we now enjoy, such as usable fisheries, plentiful freshwater, blue water beaches, extensive sea grass beds, protection from wind and erosional forces, high quality air, barriers to salt water intrusion and toxin-free water, may not be part of this new KOEEA. And our efforts to more effectively control water and continuously store imported phosphorus only serve to change initial conditions within a far from equilibrium KOEEA, adding to the uncertainty.

To better understand the KOEEA, and to better develop programs which may help preserve the existing complexity and self organization of the KOEEA, we need to confer with scientists and mathematicians, such as those with the Santa Fe Institute who have an expanded understanding of chaos, complexity and self organization within biological systems. Two actions that seem to be essential if we hope to retain critical assets and benefits associated with the KOEEA are the conversion of the EAA from an isolated agricultural region to a recovered floodplain in an effort to reestablish a “Seep and Creep” water management strategy; and the removal, recovery and export of excess phosphorus, including the stored phosphorus known as "legacy phosphorus", to improve water quality conditions within Lake Okeechobee and the downstream Everglades.

At first glance this may be seen simply as a picture of flying birds. Nothing unusual. If you are a birdwatcher, you may notice upon further review that there are two different species—the black and white winged willets and the tan marbled godwits. But did you ever wonder how a flock of birds of the same species, or in this case of different species, could fly together like this without suffering major collisions, or how they seem to work as one unit when they turn or decide to land? It is an example of self-organization. And how did this develop? There must have been a time when their flight was less efficient, when it was more chaotic. With time, the advantage of energy conservation and improved function emerged from this chaos. So also with the formation of the Kissimmee Okeechobee Everglades Ecological Amalgamation (KOEEA). What happens when this order is seriously disrupted?  Photo by Allen Stewart

Rarely do I see a bumper sticker which offers real wisdom and insight in just a few words. But it does happen, and the other day I saw one that did just that:

“Disaster movies always begin with a scientist being ignored.”

An Everglades disaster movie would have its token ignored scientist. His name would be Art Marshall. Marshall was a marine biologist whose upbringing in South Florida fueled his commitment to Everglades protection. He was the first person to talk about the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades (KOE) complex as an integrated ecological system—what I have chosen to call the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades Ecological Amalgamation or KOEEA. He correctly saw this massive KOEEA region as a “super-organism” composed of a complex of integrated biological units whose sustainability relied upon the seasonal distribution of water through slowly progressing sheet flow, aquifer recharge and intermittent storage along with the timely distribution of available nutrients (particularly phosphorus). I call this the “Seep and Creep” strategy. Solar input in concert with this “Seep and Creep” controlled primary production (photosynthesis), the principal energy procurer for the entire system. Marshall’s vision, which became known as “The Marshall Plan,” included serious reclamation of sheet flow within the KOEEA. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, famous journalist and environmental activist and the author of “Everglades: The River of Grass,” was an enthusiastic supporter of Marshall and said of him:

 “More than any other person, he stretched our idea of  the Everglades and how we are connected, which created the most powerful arguments for restoring the ecosystem.”

Marshall was eventually appreciated by many supporters of Everglades protection but sadly was rejected, ignored or disarmed through carefully directed patronization by many of those with political and pecuniary power. Marshall’s “red badge of courage” was his termination from the board of not one but two water management districts—South Florida Water Management District (1972-73) and St. Johns River Water Management District (1974-75). His legacy is analogous to the boy accurately noting that the Emperor was naked. His wisdom, as with many who are true to science and mathematics, is difficult to dispute and will likely prevail eventually—either through society’s compliance with his observations and suggestions or its suffering the consequences of persistent, irrational denial.

Perhaps more than most people at that time, Art Marshall understood that the KOEAA developed in response to environmental conditions associated with the past 5,000 years—a process called ecological succession -- an expression of self organization. He also knew that the biological and physical complexity of the KOEEA emerged from stresses associated with environmental fluctuations over these 5,000 years. These fluctuations included but were not limited to sea level changes; seasonal climate patterns and changes in these patterns; severe weather events; fire; erosion; dissolution; accretion; invasive immigration; influx of Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples; gas transfer; net productivity; detrital processes; and continual competition for resources. When these stresses presented themselves within a set range, the KOEEA as an open system moved toward a near equilibrium state and established a high degree of stability with the rate of change in entropy[1] near zero—that is, the entropy released across the system boundary was nearly equal to the entropy generated internally.

Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and important contributor to the understanding of chaos and complexity, describes a near equilibrium system (but still a nonequilibrium system) in his book “The End of Certainty”[2] as one in which the influence of perturbations or fluctuations are minimal, resulting in a return to near equilibrium conditions—what is called homeostasis in biology. Nonetheless, he notes that any nonequilibrium system may evolve spontaneously into a state of increased complexity because of irreversible processes—that is, processes that cannot be returned to their initial condition. Therefore, the dynamics and end point of an irreversible process are significantly dependent upon initial conditions, a characteristic of chaos.

As ecosystems are pushed further from near equilibrium, chaos becomes more prevalent and behavior less predictable. The direction of the dynamics relies upon probabilistic processes, meaning it cannot be calculated through classical deterministic equations. The direction, then, is not predictable. Hence, new irreversible conditions are established, and the system is eventually pushed toward a new stability and self organization and introduces the world to new innovations. This is how biological systems have formed, not through sustenance of equilibrium, but the establishment of near equilibrium, self-organized open systems, which themselves may be disrupted occasionally by forces pushing them beyond their homeostatic limits into a far from equilibrium state, which again generates new complex self-organized systems. But the direction of this generation is uncertain, and this uncertainty persists as initial conditions change.

The mathematics associated with chaos and complexity is challenging, and to be honest, well beyond my modest math skills. Therefore, my understanding is based more on this conceptual rather than mathematical explanation. Even on a conceptual level, this subject can be confusing, and consequently you may ask why I chose to burden the reader with this discourse? Are chaos, complexity, self organization, nonequilibrium and significant dependence upon initial conditions that important to our efforts to “restore” the Everglades, or more realistically, to our efforts to reclaim some stability, within the KOEEA? I believe they are. Let me offer the following explanation.

From about 20,000 years before the present (YBP) to about 5,000 YBP, Florida’s environment experienced a high rate of change as the sea rose about 300 feet until it stabilized around present-day levels. Once the rate of sea level rise decreased significantly, the environmental conditions became more stable. At the same time, the climate was becoming more subtropical, and rainfall was increasing. Consequently, the depression between Florida’s two coastal ridges began to store water and began successional processes to eventually become the KOEEA as it existed just prior to disruption by the growing American society—about 130 years ago.

For 5,000 years—until about 1881-- environmental fluctuations occurred within the KOEEA, but they were comparatively slow in developing—except for the occasional short-term event such as a hurricane. This allowed the system to gain complexity while sustaining its near equilibrium status. Over this time the KOEEA acquired a high degree of stability as it increased in biological diversity. This diversity offered both biological and physical resources which provided not only protection from severe environmental disruptions such as hurricanes, disease and droughts, but also food and habitat for inhabitants and visitors. The Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples who moved into the area about 10,000 years ago came to rely upon these resource, and they were imbued with an innate appreciation of the comparative stability of the KOEEA. Certainly, this appreciation is expressed in their belief system and by their deity—the Breathgiver—the creator of the inviolable natural laws which, if obeyed, ensured the resources of the natural world, including the KOEEA, would be always available for them and for future generations.

One can see a parallel between the Breathgiver’s natural law and the stability of the near equilibrium state. However, for reasons which are somewhat puzzling but seem to have genesis in the anthropomorphic perspective of the European cultures, Euro-Americans found this state of near equilibrium less than ideal, particularly for their monoculture-based, large-scale agriculture, and their desire for permanent housing free from flooding and other inconvenient vagaries of the KOEEA dynamic. So, they chose to dramatically disrupt the KOEEA.


Initially this disruption was associated with two actions—the accelerated removal of water through the construction of deep canals, dikes and control structures; and the influx of extensive quantities of previously unavailable phosphorus extracted from the mining and dissolving of phosphate rock associated with the Bone Valley formation[3] to the west of the KOEEA in Polk, Hillsborough, Manatee, Desoto and Hardee Counties. Other disruptions followed -- the introduction of exotic species, road construction, and the extensive use of synthetic biocides, but extreme water manipulation and extensive phosphorus influx are what initially forced the KOEEA from a near equilibrium to a far from equilibrium state.

Once the system was far from equilibrium, it became more vulnerable to perturbations and fluctuations. Its homeostatic limits had been violated, and these perturbations and fluctuations were no longer countered by a return to a near equilibrium state. As expected, as initial conditions were changed with each attempt at drainage and the expansion of agriculture and its need for fertilization, the system reacted unpredictably. For example, diversion of flood waters to the coasts deleteriously impacted valuable fisheries, and interruption of water movement into the lower Everglades resulted in muck fires and the intrusion of salt water.

To adjust the disrupted system to protect fisheries, prevent muck fires and confront salt water intrusion while opening greater areas to large-scale agriculture, the government implemented the Central and South Florida Project (C&SF) in 1948. The C&SF was first envisioned as much an environmental reclamation effort as it was a flood control project, and it was even supported initially by Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.It was felt that if water control mechanisms could be upgraded and expanded, both the need for environmental stability and protection of agriculture could be met.

But the C&SF was really nothing more than a change in initial conditions within a system far from equilibrium—and accordingly, the impacts were unpredictable. For example, the use of phosphorus fertilizer within expanded agricultural areas, such as the 650,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), resulted in ecological shifts within Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. Blue-Green algae blooms developed within the lake, and within the lower Everglades sawgrass communities began to be replaced by cattails—an opportunistic fast-growing native invasive plant that took advantage of the abundance of phosphorus. Cattails, which had over the previous 5,000 years been a comparatively rare resident within the Everglades, suddenly gained a selective advantage. And as they imposed dominance, much of the biodiversity associated with previous communities was lost. Eventually, the phosphorus levels continued to rise, impacting the Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.

In an effort to counter these developments, it was decided to develop a plan for correcting the difficulties created by the C&SF through a major restudy. This resulted in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan or CERP. The CERP strategy was multifaceted, largely based upon five principal actions:

  1. The placement of a series of storage and recovery wells (Aquifer Storage and Recovery, or ASR), along with large, comparatively deep, elevated reservoirs which would enhance water management capabilities and thereby reduce the need for diversion of flood waters to the coast while also protecting agriculture, homes and businesses from flooding and drought.

  2. Construction of large, isolated wetlands along the fringes of the EAA, and within other regions of the KOEEA, to facilitate the transfer of phosphorus from the water column to storage within the wetland sediments. These created “transfer” wetlands that became known as Stormwater Treatment Areas (STA).[4]

  3. Implementation of other phosphorus reduction programs to include revised fertilization programs for the EAA; elimination of the need for EAA back pumping into Lake Okeechobee; and implementation of Best Management Practices (BMP) in regions north of Lake Okeechobee associated with large Dairy Farms, crop agriculture and beef production.

  4. Returning of portions of the Kissimmee River to its original “ox-bow” morphology while backfilling many of the channelized sections constructed as part of the C&SF.

  5. Upgrade Domestic and Industrial Wastewater Programs to include enhanced nutrient control and reduction of septic tanks in high density areas.


The question that must be asked: Is CERP a true effort to “restore”[5] the KOEEA and the Everglades, or is it just another adjustment to initial conditions within a system that remains far from equilibrium? If the latter, then the KOEEA reaction to CERP will include unanticipated surprises, and little will be accomplished to reclaim the KOEEA as a stable system near equilibrium.

To explore this question further, let me introduce another scientist, who like Art Marshall had a keen understanding of the movement of energy and materials within complex systems. H.T. Odum founded the University of Florida’s Center for Wetlands in 1973 and remained a contributing force in the field of Systems Ecology until his death in 2002.

In 1971 Odum wrote a book entitled “Environment Power and Society” in which he linked the world of money-based economics with the energy dynamics of the biosphere. In this book he disclosed the deception of money, noting that:


“Money is a special currency evolved to allow the production of one person to be rewarded by a feedback loop from some other part of society. The money value of energy is in the proportion of (human)work spent in receiving the energy and not in the energy itself.”

As an example, consider the absurdity of gold. As an element, gold (Au) has little utilitarian value. Other than a few recently identified uses in the electronics and aerospace fields, and in dentistry, it is the quintessential trinket--a shiny object. Gold is not an essential element for physiological function, or a useful building material, being both soft and heavy. It simply was considered “scarce” and had visual appeal. If you were hopelessly stranded on an island, a ton of gold would have far less value than a handful of seed corn.

The absurdity of the value we place on gold must be seen as a perversion when we recognize that millions of people perished because of the unreasonable value assigned to it[6], and that countries often established their monetary system upon a “gold standard.” Odum would suggest a “BTU standard” or perhaps a “carbon standard” would be more congruous with the realities of Systems Ecology.


In what might be an attempt at humor, albeit serious humor, and certainly not intended as a joke, Odum included in his 1971 book ten commandments for a hypothetical “Energy Ethic” based religion. I suggest it is worth becoming familiar with some of these commandments, for they relate to our question regarding systems near equilibrium and far from equilibrium.

Commandment 5: “Thou shall treasure the other life of thy natural system as thine own, for only together shall thee all survive.”

Commandment 6: “Thou shall judge value by the energies spent, the energies stored, and the energy flow which is possible, turning not to the incomplete measure of money.”

Commandment 8: “Thou shall not take from man or nature without returning service of equal value, for only then are thee one.”[7]

Odum implies that any system or program which does not adhere to these commandments cannot gain stability or secure any significant degree of survivability.[8] Does CERP obey these commandments? Clearly the presence of the EAA violates both Commandments 5 and 8. CERP does not correct this violation.

The CERP strategy is also preferentially sensitive to concerns related to short-term accumulation of money. This is clearly demonstrated through accommodations provided the sugar cane industry associated with the EAA, despite the magnitude of the environmental disruptions attendant with this accommodation and the rather minor importance of the industry to the state’s long-term economic stability.[9] This level of favoritism is incongruent with Commandment 6.

Apart from the effort to restore the Kissimmee River, which is already showing some encouraging signs of recovery, CERP is just another change in initial conditions within a system far from equilibrium. It is a compromise between politics, monied interests and scientific principles, with the obvious fatal flaw of presuming scientific truths like conservation of mass,[10] are available for compromise. Suggesting they are so available is delusional. It is like negotiating the Laws of Gravity while you are falling from a building—rejecting, ignoring or denying science does not eliminate the inevitability of its influence. Pretending that systems far from equilibrium can be easily manipulated into a convenient and predictable arrangement by simply establishing new structural methods of controlling water and internally storing phosphorus is not tenable.

I think what many people involved in the “management” of the KOEEA have thought, either consciously or sub-consciously, is that our economy and our society can get along just fine without a stable KOEEA. And while we may through our avarice sacrifice some of the environmental amenities that we might find appealing, these amenities are not essential for our quality of life and their loss will be forgotten as just another inconsequential adjustment necessary for maintaining our prosperity. But now that we are losing fisheries, beaches, aquifers, biodiversity and many subtle but important environmental and economic assets, these thoughts may be changing.

And let me make another point. If you recall, it is the chaos associated with nonequilibrium systems, and particularly systems far from equilibrium, which enhances the complexity of nature. In ways we cannot predict or understand, the movement of the KOEEA into a state far from equilibrium has set into motion new dynamics from which new complexities will emerge. This period of redevelopment and refinement may take some time—perhaps decades, maybe even centuries. And as this new system gains in stability, and again approaches a new near equilibrium state, it will display new order and stability. But we cannot assume this new order will necessarily be sensitive to human needs. In fact, it may not even include vegetative communities, or species of birds, fish, mammals, reptiles and amphibians with which we are most familiar.[11] Chaos and complexity make no promise that we will be able to survive, much less enjoy, this new order.

While I cannot predict what the new KOEEA might look like, present trends paint a picture in which phytoplankton (suspended algae)—some of which are toxic--displace submerged vascular plants within surface waters, both freshwater and estuarine, and rapidly growing emergent plants such as cattails displace slower-growing emergent plants such as sawgrass, and accordingly will lay down fibrous organic sediment at a much faster rate, thereby driving wetlands like the Everglades and some surface waters toward more terrestrial habitats. This will impact the flow direction and levels of floodwaters. These changes can be expected to have a ripple effect by impacting different plant and animal communities, as well as resources we use and find of economic value -- healthy soil, fisheries, potable water, protection from wind and waves and even air quality. Add to this the now rapidly rising sea levels and the influence of a warming climate, and one can easily imagine a world far less appealing and much less comfortable than what we have enjoyed up to the present time. However, I suppose it is possible that the new KOEEA could in fact provide greater benefits to our society, or maybe we can simply apply what is now called “adaptive management” methods to effectively adjust to the new conditions. But do not count on it. The forces of nature are not obligated to patch up our mistakes in a manner which serves us best.

Let me leave this discussion with candid observations. The first is that the KOEEA cannot be fully restored to its initial state prior to 1881. The best we can hope for is an emulation that encourages establishment of a near equilibrium state which preserves many of the KOEEA features and assets and protects our coastal resources by limiting flood water diversions. Our best chance for accomplishing this is to follow Art Marshall’s Plan and H. T. Odum’s commandments.

If there is a chance to accomplish such an emulation, the EAA must be secured and redesigned to offer both enhancement of water quality and renewal of shallow sheet flow (“Seep and Creep”) toward Florida Bay. In addition, we cannot continue to receive and store phosphorus within the KOEEA. If STA technology is to be used, it must include periodic harvesting, recovery, reuse and export of phosphorus. Other technologies that facilitate phosphorus recovery and export should also be considered, and some of these may emerge as viable agricultural options. Finally, the excess phosphorus, known as “legacy phosphorus,” which now amounts to more than 100,000 tons of readily available phosphorus within the Lake Okeechobee watershed alone, must be removed, recovered and exported or internally recycled in replacement of imported phosphorus if we expect to alleviate the impact of excessive phosphorus loading to the Everglades, the coastal estuaries and the water column of Lake Okeechobee itself. In upcoming blogs, I will get into the “weeds” regarding phosphorus and phosphorus recovery, as well as other thoughts related to KOEEA reclamation.

The KOEEA is more than an opportunity to extract profits from development and agriculture. It is a vital resource critical to the welfare of future generations—our posterity. Our decisions must be based more upon our understanding of natural dynamics and less upon short-term pecuniary issues. Central to any effort should be serious consideration of the fate of the EAA and the necessity for its recovery and reclamation as a part of the functioning KOEEA. Finally, if we are to expand our understanding of the KOEEA we need to consult with groups knowledgeable of recent developments related to chaos, complexity and self-organization within biological systems. The Santa Fe Institute[12] is one such group, and their involvement in further review of CERP and consideration of alternative options is encouraged.

Comments are welcomed.

[1] Entropy in this case refers to energy unavailable for useful work. It may be considered a measure of disorder or randomness

[2] Prigogine, Ilya 1997 “The End of Certainty—Time, Chaos and the New Laws of Nature” The Free Press, New York, NY ISBN 0-684-83705-6

[3] The Bone Valley formation, a geologic stratum of rock and materials high in phosphorus, were deposited during the Miocene and Pliocene about 3.5 to 7.5 million years ago. They are associated with the upper Hawthorn formation in west central Florida and are overlain by recent sand, silt and clay deposits. The Bone Valley is located at depths from 30-100 feet from the surface and represent the largest source of phosphate rock in the United States.

[4] STA’s are touted as treatment wetlands, but they do not qualify in the true sense of treatment, as they merely transfer and store phosphorus within the same unit without actual removal. Consider as a comparison a wastewater clarifier from which accumulated sludge is not removed—it becomes a storage tank, not a treatment unit, and its utilitarian value is finite, limited by its storage capacity.

[5] Actual restoration typically means a return to a previous, initial condition and is not really the appropriate concept when considering irreversible processes. More applicable terms would be rehabilitation or reclamation, which are suggestive of returning to a more functional or effective state, but not necessarily the initial state.

[6] Of those killed for gold many were Florida’s Aboriginal Indigenous People.

[7] This is very similar to what we call the “posterity directive” in the Preamble; or Thomas Jefferson’s reference to usufruct in his 1798 letter to James Madison; and John Locke’s message that “nothing was made by God for man to despoil or destroy.” (In “Second Treatise of Government”)

[8] It is interesting how close Odum’s commandments are to the beliefs of North America’s Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples.

[9] See the January 25, 2018 blog in entitled “How can the EAA Best Serve the People of Florida? The Need for Long-Term Economic and Environmental Review.”

[10] The Conservation of Mass generally applies unless radioactivity or nuclear reactions are involved.

[11] This issue is discussed in detail in “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History” by Elizabeth Kolbert. ISBD-13:978-0805092998.

[12] Santa Fe Institute, 1399 Hyde Park Road Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501.From their website at   Mission: “Our researchers endeavor to understand and unify the underlying, shared patterns in complex physical, biological, social, cultural, technological, and even possible astrobiological worlds. Our global research network of scholars spans borders, departments, and disciplines, unifying curious minds steeped in rigorous logical, mathematical, and computational reasoning. As we reveal the unseen mechanisms and processes that shape these evolving worlds, we seek to use this understanding to promote the well-being of humankind and of life on earth.” “Complexity arises in any system in which many agents interact and adapt to one another and their environments. These interactions and adaptations result in evolutionary processes and often surprising "emergent" behaviors at the macro level. Complexity science attempts to find common mechanisms that lead to complexity in nominally distinct physical, biological, social, and technological systems.”



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