Allen's Blog

South Florida’s Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA)

E. Allen Stewart III P.E.—November 28, 2017

Discussion 1 of 5

The Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades Ecological Amalgamation (KOEEA)—Understanding its Beginning and its Dynamic.

If you had the opportunity to be transported to Florida's Southwest Coast of twenty thousand years ago you would want to take a few sweaters, or even better, a couple of nice Patagonia or North Face windbreakers, along with some comfortable jeans and  waterproof hiking boots. You might also want to be well weaponized, for there would be some formidable predators lurking about, including a toothy cat called a Scimitar Cat, jaguars, and some very large bears--just to mention a few. And don't forget the large mastodons, which could kill you just by accident.

So having equipped yourself and improved your probability of survival, you would notice that the sea level is considerably lower than today--in fact lower by some 300 feet.  The extended plain more than doubled the land area of present day Florida. 

Approximate coastline of Florida 20,000 years ago (shown in green) at the end of the last glaciation period, showing the approximate boundary of the southern sloped Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades Valley at that time in relative position to the central highlands and the northern sloped St. Johns/Ocklawaha River Valley  

Ancient Coastal Plain

This plain would have been characterized by expansive savannahs of low oak scrub, sedges, grasses with a few pines, interrupted by occasional springs and streams delivering groundwater and surface runoff from the interior central highlands.

The climate, as noted, would be cooler than today and the rainfall rates somewhat lower. The vegetation near the Gulf of Mexico would likely be absent the expansive mangrove forests we see today although they may have been sparsely scattered in the southern reaches. Rather the landscape would be dominated by sedges, rushes and a few salt tolerant trees, with salt marsh vegetation in the estuarine areas—similar to the salt marsh ecology we see in North Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas today. 

And did I mention the large, potentially dangerous mammals? They would be extinct in another 10,000 or so years, but not before they encountered a strange bipedal hunter—humans. There is sound evidence that humans hunted the mastodon, and most likely these people did on occasion find themselves on the prey end of a predator-prey relationship with the large cats stalking the region. 

The low sea levels provided bridges between islands as well as broad land corridors, which made it easier for people to travel. About 14,000 years ago, people had taken advantage of these and moved into Florida. There is debate, among western educated scholars, regarding where these people migrated from—perhaps from the north and west, or from Mexico, or the Caribbean or even South America. Apparently they enjoyed mastodon meat and there is some that believe their enthusiasm for hunting large mammals led to, or at least contributed to several extinctions, including the Mastodon’s. But let’s leave that discussion to the experts, which include the Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples who know about their own history. Our question is how did the Everglades emerge from this cool, dry expanded Florida? 

While Florida’s coastal plain some twenty-thousand years ago was probably comparatively flat, the interior of the peninsula was not, as it was bisected by a range of low hills whose elevations varied from 400-600 ft. above sea level at that time—we would call them foothills or central highlands today. These hills stretched from the northern part of the peninsula just southeast of the Suwannee River and terminated over 250 miles to the south near the border of today’s Glades and Highland Counties. These hills—or central highlands-- were typically overlain with fine to medium sands of low nutrient content—the remnants of ancient seashores, and weather-worn alluvial materials. The sands were often underlain by a layer of fine silts and clays, and below these were porous limestones, the result of marine deposits from the early Cenozoic some 20-50 million years earlier, when Florida was mostly sea bottom. However in some regions the sands and silts were absent and the limestones extended to the land surface, allowing them to intercept rainfall directly. 


As you explore the central highlands of twenty thousand years ago, you would find them similar to what are called Florida’s scrub communities today—dry, nutrient-starved, almost appearing as deserts with specialized vegetation adapted to low moisture availability—what scientists call xerophytes. If you were standing on top of one of these hills near the southern terminus of these highlands (see map), and looked toward the west you would see the coastal plain extending into the horizon with its seemingly endless stretch of dry savannah and scrub hardwood, interspersed with occasional springs, streams and wet prairies. The Gulf of Mexico would be out of sight, some 150 miles further to the west. As you turned and looked east, you would notice the hills slope rather sharply into an expansive valley perhaps 50 to 100 feet lower in elevation. This valley itself would be confined to the east by an Atlantic  Coastal Ridge, and would slope southward for about 250 miles all the way to the Florida Keys, beyond which it would drop off rather abruptly to that stretch of ocean between Florida and Cuba known as the Florida Straits. The elevation would drop from north to south about 90 feet over this 250 miles, but over 70 feet of this elevation change would occur in about the first 90 miles from the northern reaches just west of what is now the City of Orlando, ending at a large depression to the south that would eventually become Lake Okeechobee. From this future Lake Okeechobee to what is now the Florida Keys, the terrain would slope gradually over the broad expanse of what would become the Everglades, with the contours dropping only 20 feet over the remaining 160 miles, or just below 2.5 cm/km.  

Twenty thousand years ago this valley, which would become the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades (KOE) Watershed [1] was fairly dry with perhaps intermittent pockets of perched surface waters. Many of these pockets were only seasonally inundated, although a few may have held water year round. The reason it was dry relates to what I tell students is

the number one critical factor in understanding Florida—water flows downhill.

This applies to groundwater as well as surface water. A waterfall is an obvious example of this basic truth—but with groundwater seepage it is not so obvious. But remember the sea levels would have been some 400-500 feet below the bottom of this valley, meaning the groundwater would be comparatively deep. Therefore surface water would have infiltrated the soils rather quickly, flowing “down-gradient” to the groundwater surface. 

But over the next 15,000 years, sea levels would rise, and they would rise rapidly— averaging around 0.25 inches/year, or about 1 foot every 50 years [2].

The scrub communities we see today in Florida’s sand hills, such  as shown here from Florida’s Wekiva River Basin may be similar to what was ubiquitous in Florida’s interior when sea levels were 300 feet lower, some 20,000 years ago.

                                                    photo by Allen Stewart

And then, about 5,000 years ago, the sea level began to stabilize, and after some comparatively minor shifts, by 3,000 years ago, it had settled at levels we see today. Of course with sea level rise, groundwater levels also rose, and the KOE valley began to hold more surface water. As environmental conditions became more consistent, selective pressures also became more consistent, allowing the development of a diverse collection of biological survivors. The prolonged environmental stability resulted in an open system which over seasonal cycles balanced external input with output—what is known as a dynamic equilibrium [3]. Open systems in dynamic equilibrium offer the lowest rate of “waste” accumulation. This allows them to persist with time with few substantial long-term changes—in other words they maximize survivability and stability.  Of course open ecosystems rarely, if ever, achieve the ideal dynamic equilibrium, but they can approach this ideal as a quasi-dynamic equilibrium state, with the rate of accumulation minimized.  This consistency and stability was noted by Stephen S. Light and J. Walter Dineen in a 1994 paper entitled “Water Control in the Everglades: A Historical Perspective” [4] when they wrote:

“ More has happened to the Everglades…since 1881… than in the preceding 50 centuries. Some life-long natives say that land use in the Everglades falls into two epochs---“BC” and “AD” --meaning before canals and after drainage.” 

As suggested by this quote, about 5,000 years ago the KOE valley, which had previously experienced instability because of the fluctuations in sea level and climatic conditions, now had the opportunity to become a more stable expanded ecological complex—or a term I prefer, the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades Ecological Amalgamation or KOEEA. It is reasonable to designate this benchmark some 5,000 years ago as the beginning of the Everglades, and the time when organic soil we now associate with the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) began to slowly accumulate [5].

I use the concept of Ecological Amalgamation to designate a coalition of interconnected, interdependent ecosystems which together provide a sustainable dynamic through the management and allocation of energy, water and other materials. We could say that such an amalgamation is analogous to the human body, with its arrangement of functioning and complimentary organs, which communicate through a vascular network and the flow of blood. Certainly the human body is an ecosystem—or more correctly an Ecological Amalgamation. But the similarity between the KOEEA and a functioning human body is more than an analogy—they are from a biological perspective, simply two expressions of the same scientific principles. They both demonstrate stability through quasi-dynamic equilibria and they are both synergetic—which put simply is the understanding that the whole is greater than the simple sum of its parts. Synergetics was formally introduced by Buckminster Fuller [6] to explain how amalgamated systems behave and ensure higher levels of stability and function than what would be observed with just a collection of the various components. 

The concept of synergetics is not particularly difficult to grasp. For example, ask yourself which organ in your body is the most important? The brain perhaps—but without the heart and lungs and liver, there is no functioning brain. From such considerations for example we have learned that when practicing medicine our goal is not to select one system over another, but rather to understand the interdependency of all of the systems, and to develop our treatments to address the total body function, not just the sole welfare of a select organ or system. So now ask yourself, what is more important to the stability of the KOEEA—the Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee, The Everglades? As with the human body, it is a meaningless question without a meaningful answer. 

This idea that complex arrangements of physical and biological components can assume attributes beyond just an inert collection of molecules is relatively new to scientific thought, but it has always been central to the philosophical and social paradigms of the Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples —those often called Native Americans or American Indians. While scientists may call this phenomenon Synergetics, it would be just as legitimate to simply call it “life”. Those present day Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples who live in the vicinity of the Everglades and the Big Cypress, and who follow their ways of life, cultures and beliefs, and who are commonly called Miccosukee (although they call themselves i:laponke), show appreciation of the emergence of life, of synergetics, through their belief in the Breathgiver, or Feesha-keke-omeckhee

And before you dismiss this belief in a Breathgiver as nonsensical superstition, remember the Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples living in and around the KOEEA relied effectively upon this belief system to protect themselves and their future generations—their posterity—for well beyond 5,000 years.  Abiding by the Breathgiver’s laws—what we might call the natural laws--they sustained themselves by respecting all forms of life provided by the Breathgiver. Learning to live in concert with the Breathgiver’s law allowed them to rely upon KOEEA as a stable provider. This is how they established and sustained themselves until the immigration of Europeans—people the i:laponke call the newcomers. 

There is a bit of irony in all this, for from a pragmatic perspective the belief system of the Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples is much more congruent with present day scientific knowledge related to ecology and the study of complex systems than the anthropocentric belief structure of the European newcomers. And yet as our society struggles to reclaim the stability of the KOEEA which has been lost largely because of a long term lack of understanding of natural law, we rarely have serious conference with the Elders and spiritual leaders of Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous cultures have in fact been practicing ecologists for many centuries, and their knowledge of how the natural laws function within the KOEEA is quite extensive.

This reminds me of a young Jane Goodall, who ventured out into the African wilderness to learn through direct observation and contact, the nature of the Chimpanzee. She did this as a person without formal education at the time, who was besieged by the criticism of an army of so-called anthropological experts. But the knowledge she gained through observation and participation changed our thinking forever about our relationship with the Chimpanzee and other animals. Probably most important, Jane Goodall was not afraid to bring an emotional, spiritual component into her research—something for which she has received the most vehement criticism. She showed that science, emotion and spirituality are not only compatible, their union is essential for gaining comprehensive understanding [7]. If you have a chance read E.O. Wilson’s book, “The Creation”[8]. He also makes this point most effectively. 

And let’s understand, spirituality is not some magical, mystical babble. It is a legitimate expression of understanding of the complex interdependency of life, and that human beings are one component entangled within this complexity. We are not an independent group watching from the sidelines. We are participants, whether we like it or not! 

I became involved with the environmental issues associated with KOEEA in the 1980’s shortly after Governor Graham made an announcement regarding the need to “Save the Everglades”. I attended many meetings involving scientists, engineers, farmers, politicians, special interest groups, environmental activists, and an abundance of bureaucrats. Not once can I remember any Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples being invited to seriously or respectfully participate at any level in these meetings and/or discussions. If they were present it seemed to be through token gestures, not as valuable resources of knowledge and understanding. This has changed somewhat in recent years, but I still sense that their input is sought out of some sense of obligation, not a willingness to adjust present thoughts or ideas as a result of their observations and suggestions.  I believe the knowledge of Aboriginal Indigenous leaders who understand and follow their way of life are necessary as we work together to reconcile and restore our long term stability and obligation to posterity.  After all, the way to solve complex environmental problems is to involve all of the stakeholders.  The Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples are the original stakeholders in the KOEEA, and their concerns require objective, serious consideration if meaningful resolution is to be realized.

In the upcoming blogs I will complete the review of how the lands now in the EAA developed, and how and why our society chose to use the KOEEA resources, and in so doing disrupted its 5,000 year period of relative stability. In later blogs I will examine the economic and environmental dynamics of the present day EAA, and offer some ideas regarding reconciliation of immediate needs with the needs of future generations. 

I suggest that as we proceed, it is critical that we actively involve the Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples in the planning and development of reclamation plans within the KOEEA. This would require that we attain the free, prior and informed consent of the Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples when any plan or action may impact their current and original lands, rights or way of life, not just allowing comment in public hearings, or brushing aside legitimate concerns when they run counter to preconceived notions or plans. 

Bobby C. Billie is recognized as one of the Clan Leaders and Spiritual Leader of the Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation Aboriginal Peoples. He was born within the KOEEA, and is of the Panther Clan—the Clan which teaches of the Breathgiver’s law (Bobby uses the term Creator rather than Breathgiver when talking in public.) His honesty, intelligence and commitment has drawn international attention, and his ideas are beginning to gain the legitimacy they deserve among some involved in setting policy within the KOEEA, although he has a way to go to make in-roads with some of the more resistant participants who have pecuniary or political interests in the region. 

There is an urgent and dire need for a three way reconciliation involving our present social paradigm; the essence of the Breathgiver’s Law as expressed by Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples such as Bobby C. Billie; and Science. Central to this reconciliation is the fate of 27% of the historical Everglades called the EAA, now primarily used to support the cultivation of sugar cane. What is the true short-term and long-term value of the EAA, and how will decisions related to it impact “ourselves and our posterity”  as well as the future generations of all Life? 

I will end this writing with a quote from Bobby C. Billie from a 2001 entry he made to the St. Thomas Law review, Volume 14, number 2 entitled “The Independent Traditional Seminole Nation: Defending our Heritage and our Land”



           “We need to change the way to think about the future of our kids—what are we going to pass on to them? We can’t pass them just money. They need something else, water and earth to plant the seeds….We are not thinking of humans, but all things. You should speak of them too.  Then you can make sense of life yourself.”     Bobby C. Billie.  Council of the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation Aboriginal Peoples    

Photo by Permission from Bobby C. Billie

[1] I prefer to call the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades Watershed the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades Ecological Amalgamation or KOEEA, as its integrated dynamics involve more than just the capture of water, although that is certainly an important component.

[2]From 5,000 years ago to the beginning of the industrial revolution, sea levels rose at a rate of perhaps 0.01 inches per year, or 1 foot in 1,200 years. Since the industrial revolution in the late 1800's sea level rise has increased to well over 0.06 inches per year or 1 foot in 200 years, and more recently this rate has been closer to 0.12 inches per year or 1 foot every 100 years--and the rate appears to be increasing.

[3] If you have trouble grasping the concept of dynamic equilibrium of an open system, think of the human body that balances caloric input with calories burned (ouput) as being in dynamic equilibrium. A body in dynamic equilibrium, or close to a dynamic equilibrium (quasi-dynamic equilibrium) stabilizes and does not continue to accumulate calories as excess body fat, thereby statistically increasing its life expectancy--i.e. survivability 

[4] Included in the book "Everglades: The Ecosystem and its Restoration" edited by Steve Davis and John Ogden. 1994 St. Lucie Press. Delay Beach, Fla. ISBN0-9634030-2-8

[5] It is a bit of an oversimplification to suggest there were no changes in the KOEEA during this 5,000 years, but they involved comparatively slow vegetational transitions as the KOEEA went through successional processes and responded to organic accumulations.

[6] Fuller, R.B.  and E.J. Applewhite, 1975 1975 "Synergetics: Exploration of the Geometry of Thinking" Macmillan Publishing ISBN-13 978-0025418707

[7] J. Goodall, J 1990 "Through a Window: My thirty years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe" George Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London ISBN 0-395-50081-8

[8] Wilson,  E.O. 2007 "The Creation" W.W, Norton and Company ISBN-13:978-0393330489. Regarded as one of the world's preeminent biologists and naturalists, Edward O. Wilson grew up in south Alabama and in the Florida Panhandle, where he spent his boyhood exploring the region's forests and swamps. collecting snakes, butterflies, and ants--the latter to become his lifelong specialty. The author of more than twenty books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Ants" and "The Naturalist" as well as his first novel "Anthill", Wilson, a professor at harvard, makes his home in Lexington, Massachusetts.