Allen's Blog

South Florida’s Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA)

E. Allen Stewart III P.E.—December 27, 2017

Discussion 3 of 5

Where does the EAA Fit in the Scheme of Things? 

Roseate Spoonbills feeding in a Florida wetland. What is their future and how does it fit in with ours? Photo by Larry (Coop) Cooper 2017

“Drain the Swamp!” This has become a common metaphor in the recent political climate. As a native Floridian, and a person who has spent much of his time in “swamps,”[1] I find the implications outdated and inappropriate. First of all, it is illegal to drain “swamps” (we now call them wetlands) without proper permitting and mitigation[2]. Second, the insinuation is that “swamps” are either bad or support bad things, and that draining them makes things better.

I know the political intent—get rid of all the corruption, the entrenched recalcitrant bureaucrats, the “beltway” politicians and the special interest lobbyists in Washington DC, but I hardly see the inhabitants of a “swamp” as equivalent to this political “fauna.” In fact, if you take 

 time to familiarize yourself with the physical and biological realities of Florida's wetlands you may be surprised how fascinating they are .

 

It is sad testimony that we still use a metaphor which if not politically incorrect is misleading and indicative of a too-common acceptance of “swamps” being undesirable places. Perhaps rather than using “Drain the Swamp,” politicians could use “Clear the Temple of Money Changers.”

Calling Florida’s wetlands “swamps” is like calling Michelangelo’s Pietà a chunk of marble. In today’s world we should know better.

But, of course, much of Florida’s history since statehood in 1845 has oscillated around a driving desire to drain “swamps.” And until well into the twentieth century, all but a few obscure voices from the fringe[3] thought Florida’s destiny and future prosperity were dependent upon removing water from seasonally wet places, such as the KOEEA.[4]

In 1842, following the end of the Second Seminole War, Florida, still a U.S. Territory, took up the challenge of populating its southern peninsula through the Armed Occupation Act. This provided 160 acres of land for any white male citizen over the age of 18 who lived on the land for five years and cleared and farmed at least five acres. The primary purpose was to establish a militia which could respond to any disruptions from the few Seminoles that remained, and of course, to promote agriculture.

This approach was assisted in 1850 by the Swamp and Overflowed Land Act that transferred “swamps” such as the Everglades from Federal ownership to State ownership—Florida had become a State in 1845--on the provision that such lands would be drained and put into “productive” use; i.e., farming. The thought was that if the interior of the southern peninsula was not fit for urbanization, it should at least be modified to support agriculture.

The third Seminole War—or Billy Bowlegs War, which finally ended in 1858 -- slowed down “swamp” draining considerably. And then came the Civil War.

 

After the Civil War, some agriculture began to move into the KOEEA, particularly cattle ranching in the Kissimmee Basin, around Lake Okeechobee, and in the neighboring Peace River basin. But as long as the ranchers and farmers were at the mercy of seasonal water level fluctuations, agriculture would be restricted to isolated peripheral areas of the KOEEA.

In 1881, Hamilton Disston was successful in dredging canals through inundated lands within the Kissimmee River floodplain; this facilitated more rapid removal of flood waters. Disston did succeed in draining lands in the upper Kissimmee Basin and demonstrating the ability to grow sugarcane in these drained soils, but his actions increased the rate of flow into Lake Okeechobee. The lake then sent this excess water down the newly dredged Caloosahatchee River, causing flooding of its basin, including the city of Ft. Myers. Disston never got around to draining the Everglades. That would come later.

There is a saying in the South: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The implication is that before you make changes to a system, be certain the changes will result in an improvement, not a degradation. Ancillary to this, we at PASOP recently offered the Humpty-Dumpty Axiom.

“Rejecting, ignoring or denying science does not eliminate the inevitability of its influence. Any laws, rules, comprehensive plans, regulations, codes, policies, orders, mandates or directives based on a lack of scientific understanding will over the long-term likely cost society more than the money these actions were originally designed to save. It is much easier and less expensive to break things than it is to fix them after they are broken.”

Unfortunately, neither the old Southern saying nor the Humpty-Dumpty Axiom were considered when it came to draining the Everglades or other components of the KOEEA. After all, the KOEEA in its state in the 1800s was considered "broke" because of its wildly fluctuating water levels and its vulnerability to disruptive weather such as hurricanes. It seemed to American society during this period that without “fixing,” most of the KOEEA was incompatible with meaningful human habitation. In making this assessment, they did not consider the Seminoles and Miccosukee who were in fact living meaningful lives within the KOEEA. But it was thought the Seminoles and Miccosukee were forced to live in the “swamp,” so they had no choice. This was only partly true.

The other argument was that while these “swamps” could support a few Indians, they could never support an expanded population. There is evidence, however, that this was not true. Long before the European incursion into Florida and before the Seminoles and Miccosukee were chased into South Florida, there was a sizable, diverse group of Aboriginal Indigenous People in Florida, and many of them lived within the KOEEA. Henry Dobyns,[5] a Cornell-trained PhD in Anthropology who specialized in the Ethno history and demography of Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples in the Western Hemisphere, estimated that the pre-Columbian population in Florida exceeded 700,000. This is twice the population of Florida in1890. And while some argue that Dobyn’s numbers are optimistic, it is likely there were as many if not more Aboriginal Indigenous People in Florida prior to European intervention as there were Americans in Florida in 1890. And yet, while Florida’s government was frantically searching for ways to drain and reshape the KOEEA, the pre-Columbian indigenous population apparently lived without seriously altering the ecological stability of their environment. This does not mean they did not have an impact, for they built navigational canals, used fire to clear fields, imported goods from other groups north of Florida, hunted and fished, built large mounds, and farmed. But their disruptions did not exceed the homeostatic[6] capabilities of the ecosystems upon which they relied.

Fort Center Site seen from Fisheating Creek, Glades County, Florida. Aboriginal Indigenous People known as the Belle Glade Culture may have travelled from South America to develop a population center here, which was characterized by sophisticated art and architecture and ingenious farming methods involving nutrient recovery and recycling and cultivation of maize perhaps as much as 3,000 years ago. Photo by E. Allen Stewart III 2017

And if you think most of this indigenous population was with the northern groups such as the so-called Timucuan or Apalachee, read the accounts of the Spaniard Hernando D’Escalante Fontenada, who in 1549 was captured at age 13 by the Calusa, and spent 17 years living and traveling with the Calusa until his return to the Spanish culture in 1566. He writes about a sizable town named Guacata on Lake Mayaimi (Lake Okeechobee), and several smaller towns in the vicinity. He also mentions a number of cities between the Keys and Tampa Bay, some on the coast, some in the interior. Based on his experience, he learned that the Aboriginal Indigenous people had a widespread presence throughout south Florida, much of it being controlled and dominated by the Calusa [7]--the Fierce People--who

established sophisticated population centers along the Southwest Coast of Florida.

Archaeological evidence reveals that well before the Calusa established themselves, a group known as the Belle Glade Culture lived near the intersection of Fisheating Creek and the western shoreline of Lake Okeechobee. Excavations and evaluations of one of their population centers known as the Fort Center site were conducted in the 1960s and ‘70s by William Sears,[8] an archeologist with the University of Florida. The Fort Center site is in Glades County, contiguous to Fisheating Creek, and about 4 to 5 miles west of the present-day Harney Pond arm of Lake Okeechobee.

Sears’ investigations provided evidence that the Bell Glade Culture occupied this region over the continuous period from around 500 to1000 BC to 1700 AD. What is most remarkable is not only the level of sophistication and the quality of art works and architecture, but also the elaborate use of circular canals alternated with raised crop beds, which apparently included the growing of maize (corn) almost 3,000 years ago—well before the widespread cultivation of corn by the Apalachee to the north. In addition, Sears believed the Belle Glade people travelled into Florida from South America, and they brought maize with them. While some of Sears’ observations are still being debated, and are somewhat controversial, there was no doubt a highly developed, self-sufficient culture occupied areas such as this within the KOEEA thousands of years before European intervention.

What I find interesting with the Fort Center findings is the integration of canals with the cultivation plots. This is similar to what is seen within Mayan farming methods,[9] in which canals are dug for purposes of establishing contiguous raised beds while providing not only irrigation water but a means of recovering nutrients. As the canals filled with precipitated and settled sediments and became overgrown with aquatic vegetation, they would be cleaned, and the recovered material used to build soil and sustain cultivation—a viable method of nutrient recycling.

 

This allowed the Mayans to escape the use of typical slash and burn agriculture, which requires eventual abandonment of a site as it becomes nutrient starved. It is somewhat ironic that the capture and recovery of nutrients using sediment removal and managed aquatic plant cultivation may yet serve as a principal means of water quality reclamation and nutrient recycling within the KOEEA—more of this in later blogs. One might say we may have an opportunity to finally catch up with the Mayan and the Bell Glade people!

It is unfortunate that those Floridians who so desperately wanted to fix the KOEEA so it could support agriculture did not pay more attention to the history and practices of the Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples. It appears the attitude of the day was that these “Indians” did not have the intellectual capability to envision and develop large-scale agriculture in the KOEEA region.[10] It was believed they succumbed to the miseries which nature laid upon them in the form of floods, hurricanes, drought, and mosquito infestations because they did not know any better. In reality, their differences with the Euro-American society were not so much intellectual as they were cultural and religious. While the Euro-American culture felt nature was a potential threat to their welfare and needed to be conquered and subdued, the Aboriginal Indigenous Peoples relied upon nature and the earth as the foundation of their beliefs and laws; it was central to their welfare. Another major difference was the use of money as a symbol of wealth and the development of capitalism within the American economic system.

As the nineteenth century was coming to an end, both the state and federal governments were busy developing and implementing strategies to defeat the swamps of the KOEEA, with particular attention given the Everglades. The history of their efforts has been well-documented, and there are several fairly recent books which tell this story in detail, revealing some of the real characters in Florida’s history as a state, including Hamilton Disston, Henry Flagler, Napoleon Broward, Ernest Coe, Spessard Holland, Art Marshall, H.T. Odum and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas. Five books that I particularly enjoy are Patrick Smith’s novel, A Land Remembered; Marjorie Stoneman Douglas’ Everglades River of Grass; Michael Grunwald’s The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise; Diane Roberts’ Dream State: Eight Generations of Swamp Lawyers, Conquistadors, Confederate Daughters, Banana Republicans, and other Florida Wildlife; and H.T. Odum's Environment Power and Society.

 

If I had to briefly summarize the attempts to drain the Everglades and the KOEEA, I would say it was a series of “oops” moments. As an example, an “oops” moment is when your realize too late that the top of the salt shaker is loose, or when you leave Maitland for Tampa at 4 p.m. on Friday, forgetting that you best go west to SR429, rather than taking I-4 directly through Orlando and Disney.

Regarding KOEEA drainage, Disston’s dredging in the Kissimmee Basin was the first “oops. He forgot to do the hydraulic calculations for flows into Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee. Disston’s “oops” was followed by Napoleon Broward's attempts to draw down Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades by dredging canals from south of the lake to the Atlantic coast, which resulted in slower than expected flow down these canals; again hydraulic calculations were not completed properly—another “oops.” His canals, however, did open some of the Everglades to agriculture. But then in the 1920s, the big hurricanes hit, and the Corps of Engineers got serious about controlling Lake Okeechobee. They diked the lake, separating it from the Everglades and sending most of the excess water down the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee. This damaged the coastal estuaries and turned the lake into a quasi-isolated reservoir, which proceeded to accumulate highly nutritious runoff from the farmland and grazing pastures to the north—“oops” again. The haphazard manner in which water was routed away from the Everglades exposed the muck during drought periods, which generated muck fires while also inviting salt water intrusion--another "oops".

It was decided by the late 1940s that a major water management project was needed to fix these "oops" events; hence the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project (C&SF) of 1948. There were however several “oops” moments associated with the C&SF, with the channelization of the Kissimmee River being perhaps the first action noted to have been an ecological mistake. With this “oops,” many fish, birds, and wildlife species were seriously impacted, and it became evident that some actions were needed to restore the river and its floodplain. In keeping with the Humpty-Dumpty Axiom, the restoration cost more than the initial channelization, but it has been for the most part a success story. Much of the Kissimmee River again flows in its original serpentine channel and is allowed to overflow into its floodplain.

The construction of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) as a component of the C&SF, was completed in 1962. The EAA, at about 700,000 acres, accounts for around 27% of the historical Everglades. Its completion, in a fortuitous coincident, happened just after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. As Cuba had been a major sugar supplier to the United States since World War I, the revolution, which resulted in a trade embargo with the new Communist government of Cuba, created a void in the sugar supply. The EAA was the obvious remedy to this void, and subsequently the acreage in sugarcane rose from under 50,000 acres in 1955 to nearly 250,000 acres by 1965. Today, of the nearly 550,000 acres under cultivation in the EAA, most is in sugarcane, and the cultivation of sugarcane serves two major companies who provide the needed processing—Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar Corporation.

There are several “oops” moments associated with the EAA:

  • Because of the need to manage water in the EAA to ensure crop viability, it became necessary during wet seasons to actually back-pump into Lake Okeechobee, which impacted the nutrient dynamics within the lake. During the 1980s, algal blooms were thought to be partly attributable to the back-pumping and so an Interim Action Plan was implemented which eliminated this practice. However, due to recent high rainfall during the summer of 2016, and the desire to prevent high nutrient discharges into the Everglades National Park (ENP), periodic back-pumping has resumed.

  • Associated with the EAA were contiguous expansive water conservation areas. These provide storage of water for purposes of countering saltwater intrusion; providing irrigation water during dry periods; and providing water supply to the Miami Urban Complex. However, by disrupting the normal wet season-dry season cycling, the ecological stability of the Everglades was disrupted, and flow-timing to the Everglades National Park deviated from historical patterns.

  • Release of waters high in phosphorus from the EAA and from Lake Okeechobee changed the eco-structure of the Everglades Sawgrass Complex, allowing encroachment by cattails. Cattails are native, but they are invasive, taking advantage of nutrient increases. The predominance of cattails interferes with the ecological dynamic associated with sawgrass, and the influence of this disruption changes the ecology throughout the Everglades and the receiving waters of Florida Bay.

  • Because of the need to avoid heavy nutrient loading to the ENP, the excess waters within a rising Lake Okeechobee have been discharged at high rates down the Caloosahatchee River to the west and the St. Lucie River to the east. These waters have disturbed the salinity balance within the receiving estuaries, as well as contributing excessive nutrient loads. Blooms of potentially toxic cyanobacteria (often called blue-green algae) have attended these discharges in several areas, creating conditions threatening to marine life and even human health. These discharges have had deleterious economic impacts on the tourist and real estate industry in the impacted coastal areas.

The dynamic that is now taking shape promises to evolve into a serious confrontation of economic forces—those associated with the large, politically powerful sugar industry and other agricultural interests facing off with the tourism, recreational and commercial fishing, real estate, and construction industries. Within the large but often amorphous community of environmental activists, there is an opportunity to shift the players, and I would suspect there may develop a few strange relationships over the coming years as the need to address these issues become more urgent.

As this urgency grows, two questions will emerge as most relevant.

  1. What are the true long-term economic implications of the EAA and how do we make such an assessment? Is it in the best interest of the people of Florida and the rest of the United States to protect sugarcane production in the EAA through continued operation of the water management program which shields the cultivation from excess water or from a lack of irrigation water during dry periods?

  2. In terms of our obligation to posterity, how seriously do we take the language within the Preamble of the Constitution? [“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity….”] Is it a mandate, a suggestion, or simply dramatic but empty verbiage?

In the next blog, I will be including a serious and objective examination of short-term and long-term economics, and a hint as to how some issues might be reasonably managed. Right now, most of us look at the EAA problem as serious, almost insurmountable, considering the magnitude of the expected costs and the acrimony that presently impedes efforts to establish cooperation. From another, more pragmatic, perspective, I will leave you with a suggestion from Albert Einstein:

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

                                                                                                                           

[1] I put quotations around the word swamp, because it is often seen as a disrespectful and oversimplified word for wetlands, which is not appropriate usage of the word today considering our present understanding of wetland ecology and the dynamics of complex wetland systems such as the Kissimmee Okeechobee Everglades Ecological Amalgamation or KOEEA.

[2] At times I find mitigation is lacking, like removing a real arm and replacing it with a prosthesis. How do you replace a stable wetland which underwent perhaps hundreds, if not thousands, of years of successional development with planting a few immature cypress trees and a smattering of pickerel weed and Sagittaria? But that is a discussion for another day.

[3] This “fringe” included Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and most of the Miccosukee and Seminole People.

[4] KOEEA is an acronym for the integrated ecosystem known as the Kissimmee Okeechobee Everglades Ecological Amalgamation [see November 30, 2017 blog (www.pasop.org) -- The Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades Ecological Amalgamation (KOEEA)—Understanding Its Beginning and its Dynamic.]

[5] Dobyns, H.F. and Swagerty, W.R. (1984) “Their Numbers Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America” Indiana Magazine of History Volume 80, Issue 3, pp 296-297

[6]Ecosystems develop through a maturation process known as succession, through which they adapt to the patterns of environmental variation related to climate, severe weather events, fire and shifts in flora and fauna populations. The ability to survive these variations and maintain stability is called homeostasis. When these variations far exceed these homeostatic limits, then the stability of the ecosystem can be jeopardized.

[7] As a point of historical interest, the Calusa are the ones who killed Ponce de Leon, shooting him with an arrow dipped in the toxic juices of the machineel tree. It was the poison, not the arrow wound, that killed Ponce de Leon, who died in Havana  shortly after being shot.

[8] Sears, William H. l 1982  Fort Center: An Archaeological Site in the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Gainesville, FL: University Presses of Florida

[9] See https://www.nature.com/news/2010/101105/full/news.2010.587.html

[10] Andrew Jackson in reference to Indian Tribes impacted by the Indian Removal Act: “They have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement which are essential to any favorable change in their condition. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.”