In beautifulAnhinga Trail's once clear waters, now a mass of soupy mud as a result of theinterminable drought that is devastating south Florida, an alligator caught agarfish (above) and fought to preserve it from the hungry jaws of scavengingturtles. Such scenes were frequent last week throughout the Everglades NationalPark, famed for its subtropical wildlife, as animals crept to dwindling waterholes in a desperate struggle for survival. The great ibis and heron rookerieswere bare. Instead of nesting, the birds fled in thousands to Cuba and othernearby Caribbean islands. What mammals that were left starved and fresh-waterbass choked as ocean salt water pushed up rivers. Finally—what the Park Servicehad dreaded most—the fires came, bringing with them destruction and a denseblack cloud so big it almost forced postponement of Astronaut Scott Carpenter'slift-off at Cape Canaveral, 200 miles away.
How the DroughtWas Made
Droughts andgrass fires have long occurred periodically in the vast sweep of theEverglades. But since a series of drainage projects was first started (in1847), the droughts, not surprisingly, have increased in destructiveness. As aresult, National Park Service experts feel that, deprived of the conditionsthat made them, the wildlife and vegetation features of Everglades NationalPark will inevitably atrophy and possibly some day even disappear.
The wellspring oflife in the Everglades is the 730-square-mile Lake Okeechobee. There was a timewhen waters from the north flowed into Okeechobee, which in turn overflowed itsbanks and fed the huge, flat swamp area to the south. When man began drainingthe region below the lake, he created rich agricultural lands—and problems. In1928 one of Florida's most destructive hurricanes blew the water out ofOkeechobee, inundating surrounding farm country and killing 2,400 people. Toprevent a recurrence, dikes were built around the lake and the excess water wasdiverted through canals and rivers to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf ofMexico. There is some evidence that this may have caused a climatic change inthe area. Whether true or not, a succession of droughts and floods ensued,culminating in 1947, when winds and rain flooded 3 million acres and causeddamage to crops and cities estimated at $59 million.
At this point theArmy Corps of Engineers entered the picture with an imaginative projectembracing a network of dikes, canals, pumping stations and impoundments.Costing $334 million, it is designed to prevent floods, store water fordistribution in time of need and, hopefully, supply water to the EvergladesNational Park. It still is unfinished, but park men are beginning to doubt thatthe project will help much, anyway. The engineers themselves say that becauseof the unexpected population growth in south Florida the demands for humanconsumption, agriculture and industry will be so great that the park will getextra water only in times of superabundance. That will hardly solve theEverglades' long-range problem.
What the Fire HasDone
Probably started by a match or cigarette tossed from a car on the TamiamiTrail, fire fanned by 25-mile-an-hour winds roared out across the Everglades.Too fast and hot to be controlled, it soon became apparent that this was morethan the usual dry-season grass fire common to south Florida. Because of theseverity of the drought, even the peaty soil burned. By the third day flameshad swept into Everglades National Park, and visitors to the overlook tower atPahayokee saw the Seminole Indians' "river of grass" turn into a floodof fire. Using ground crews and planes with chemicals, fire fighters concededthe vast middle area of the Everglades and battled to save the park's maintourist and scientific attractions. A few showers fell on the 10th day, some ofthem putting out fingers of the fire, but already more than 162,000 acres hadburned over, 60,000 of them in the park, and anxious officials scanned weatherreports for signs that the overdue rainy season would soon begin. The heavyrains never came last year, and if the fires should continue now the U.S.surely would lose one of its great scenic wonders.
The hoped-forcure and the damage
A cure for south Florida's continuing trouble with droughts and floods, whichare threatening the Everglades and have already cost millions of dollars andmany lives, is being sought in a massive undertaking by the Army Corps ofEngineers. It is that organization's biggest earth-moving job since it finisheddigging the Panama Canal in 1914. Map at top shows how floodwaters channeledfrom Lake Okeechobee will be collected in three large impoundments divided bydikes (Conservation Area) when the project is completed in a few years. Fromthese shallow lakes, water will be drawn to recharge subsurface water for eastcoast cities and to supply agricultural and industrial needs. It is also hopedthat enough water will collect in the lower impoundment to be passed under theTamiami Trail into Everglades National Park. The extent of burned-over land inthe park's present great fire, still burning on Monday despite a two-weekbattle to contain it, is shown in the lower map.
Evidence ofdrought conditions in Everglades National Park is presented by water gauge inslough at Anhinga Trail. Where fish swim and birds feed in normal times, thereis now only mud scarred by the tracks of alligators. Last week the water tablein the vicinity of the park headquarters had dropped to 2.18 feet below sealevel, lowest in the park records.
A mother and babyalligator were among hundreds that congregated in a canal and moat near SevenMile Tower in the northern section of the park a fortnight ago when an isolatedshower raised the water level. Last week fires burned on three sides of theoasis, but fire fighters successfully brought the flames under control topreserve the remaining wildlife.