OKEECHOBEE — The manmade system of canals and channelized waterway tell the history of the State of Florida.
While some early Florida settlers sought to “drain the swamp” — with the encourage of the federal government — waterways were also dug, straightened or deepened for navigation, transportation and most critically, for flood control.
Those man-made systems are more efficient in transporting water than the winding rivers and vast flood plains created by nature. That means north of the Big O, water flows faster than nature intended from the Kissimmee River basin into Lake Okeechobee, faster than it can be released, even with all of the water control structures open.
It’s a complicated system with a complicated history, and no easy solutions to the water quality and quantity problems.
According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers records, in the early 1900s, Congress instructed the Corps to investigate sites for an inland route, which became part of a larger project to provide a protected waterway between Boston and the Rio Grande.
The recommended route was approved by Congress in the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1927. In 1937, a completed Okeechobee Waterway provided an all-water route across Florida, linking the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway to the Gulf Coast Intracoastal Waterway.
The interior waterway proved valuable during World War II, when German submarines sunk countless merchant ships along the Atlantic coast.
After World War II, east coast waterways were deepened and widened to improve the state’s transportation network.
Then came the Great South Florida Flood.
In 1947, after several years of drought, Florida was deluged by rainfall that averaged 100 inches along the lower east coast, nearly twice the normal rainfall, according to the South Florida Water Management District records.
Next came the storms. In September and October two hurricanes and a tropical storm battered the ‘Sunshine’ state, leaving most of the state from Orlando south submerged. Roads and streets were flooded.
Cattle drowned, as did deer and other wildlife that could not find high ground.
Much of the ground had already been saturated before two hurricanes hit the state late in the year, and flooding throughout the region was devastating.
According to records in the University of Florida/IFAS library, in 1947 flood water inundated outlying suburban areas of West Palm Beach, and 30 percent of the city of Fort Lauderdale, including the business district, railroads, industrial and residential sections. Large areas in the western part of Miami and the outlying communities of Miami Springs and Hialeah were under water.
The flood damaged roads, utilities, railroads and airports in the coastal area.
Newspaper articles from 1947 and 1948 tell the story. The Sept. 19, 1947 edition of the Okeechobee News, called the Sept. 17 hurricane “the worst since 1928” and noted the heavy rainfall that came with the hurricane lasted more than a week.
“.. the town and most neighboring sections were flooded with water and the cattle pastures were most of them almost completely under water,” the article states.
The Oct. 17, 1947, edition of the Okeechobee News relates “storm and flood damage over weekend was serious.”
“Thousands of residents of lowland areas were forced to seek refuge elsewhere,” the newspaper story continues. Throughout South Florida, thousands of refugees from the flooding were housed in schools and other public buildings.
The people of South Florida cried out for flood control, newspaper stories explain.
The State of Florida asked the federal government for a master plan to tame nature’s excesses.
In 1948, the U.S. Congress adopted legislation creating the Central and Southern Florida (C&SF) Project, the largest civil works project in the country. Construction began the next year and continued over 20 years as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the massive flood control plumbing system stretching from just south of Orlando to Florida Bay, according to the SFWMD archives.
In 1948, the Florida Legislature created the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District, the predecessor to the South Florida Water Management District, to manage the C&SF Project.
Project divided Everglades
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
“The Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project, Five Years of Progress,” published in 1954 states: “As a pioneer in this type of cooperative enterprise, this worthwhile project is dependent upon participation by all branches of government from the local to the Federal level, equally with participation by individual landowners; an objective which is being achieved without the onus of socialization or the sacrifice of any rights, individual, county, state or Federal, but operating to the ultimate benefit of all.”
The document explains that major features in the east coast area are protective levees.
“A major levee running down the length of the coastal area from Lake Okeechobee past Miami was one of the priority projects included in the plan and is basically completed at present. Further flood protection will be provided by improvement of coastal canals,” the 1954 document states.
According to the Duke University Wetlands Center, “The C&SF Project had three main components. First, it established a perimeter levee through the eastern portion of the Everglades, blocking sheet flow so that lands farther east would be protected from direct Everglades flooding. This levee severed the eastern 16 percent of the Everglades from its interior. Second, the C&SF Project designed a large area of northern Everglades, south of Lake Okeechobee, to be managed for agriculture. Named the Everglades Agriculture Area (EAA), it encompassed about 27 percent of the historic Everglades and was a major factor in the economic justification of the C&SF Project. Third, water conservation became the primary designated use for most of the remaining Everglades between the EAA and Everglades National Park, limited on the east by the eastern perimeter levee and on the west by an incomplete levee bordering the Big Cypress Swamp.”
The plan to set aside some Everglades land for urban development and some for farming was key to obtaining the funding for the flood control project. The state and the federal governments wanted to see some economic return on the investment of tax dollars.
The dike around Lake Okeechobee was also increased in size, to allow for more water storage in the lake.
The flood control project did what it was designed to do. The massive network of canals, levees and water conservation areas blocked the sheetflow that would have otherwise flooded the expanding urban areas in the wet season, provided more water for urban and agricultural use in dry season use and helped create a thriving farming industry just south of Lake Okeechobee in the Everglades Agricultural Area.
But the flood control measures had unintended results and environmental changes were exacerbated by the rapidly growing human population. Fish species began to decline. Wading birds started to disappear. Seagrass in Florida Bay died.
Environmentalists fought for changes to restore as much as possible of the natural system.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), submitted to Congress in 1999, is composed of a series of projects designed to address four major characteristics of water flow: quantity, quality, timing and distribution.
The plan was authorized by Congress in 2000. The federal government and the state of Florida entered into a 50/50 partnership to restore, protect and preserve water resources in central and southern Florida.
It was originally expected to take about 30 years. According to recent reports, that original estimate could be doubled.
Much of the delay has to do with funding. When it comes to Congress, there’s a big difference between an authorization and an appropriation. As of the 2016 CERP report, only about 16-18 percent of required funding had been allocated.
SOURCES: Sources for this article included records and reports from the South Florida Water Management District, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Department of Environmental Projection, the Duke University Wetlands Center, SFWMD, USACE, FDEP, University of Florida Water Institute and “Progress Toward Restoring the Everglades, Sixth Biennial Review.”