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Original Issue

Water wanted for a parched park

A big impoundment in the north and a projected road in the south could choke Florida's Everglades

Stanley C. Joseph, the short, round-faced superintendent of Everglades National Park, stood by a window in his office, gazing toward a nearby pond that was so low it resembled a desert water hole. He stares at that pond frequently these days, for it is a gauge of his worst anxiety. "If we don't get water," he said, "it will mean the end of the park as we know it today."

Oddly enough, Joseph was not complaining about lack of rainfall in the park, although that has compounded his woes. He was referring to one of the strangest conservation struggles in the nation—the effort of the Everglades National Park to get its share of the natural drainage water of south Florida. Between Lake Okeechobee and the park the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is completing one of the biggest flood-control and water-distribution projects of its kind in the world. Out of it, because of the water-release schedule, the park has gotten only a trickle.

As Joseph looked at the shrunken pond he could have repeated what experts in many fields have been saying: 1) lack of fresh water moving through the Everglades from the north could mean the end of the park's fine sport fishing for snook, redfish and other species; 2) it could mean the impairment or possible loss of the commercial fishing for sea trout and stone crab in Florida Bay; 3) it could do great harm to the shrimp industry at the Dry Tortugas shrimping grounds 100 miles away. Scientists have recently informed Joseph that each one of those millions of shrimp harvested at Dry Tortugas passes part of its life in Everglades National Park.

Since Joseph was given the task of solving the Everglades' water problem, he has pushed scientific studies of the area's ecology to prove the park's need for fresh water. Armed with these studies, he has pleaded the park's case to the Army engineers and the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District. The latter administers the gargantuan complex of canals, dikes, impoundments and pumping stations. So far, alarmingly little has been pumped the park's way, despite an agreement for an interim flow of water, pending eventual settlement of the problem.

When the time for the release came, one of the gates just north of the park was opened an inch, and for a week water flowed into the park at the rate of 10 cubic feet per second. The parched land absorbed this ridiculously small amount in no time. "It was like spitting out the window," a member of the park staff said.

Ed Dail, executive director of the Flood Control District, explains that the giant system cannot deliver water to the park without hurting the farmers in the big vegetable-and sugar-growing area south of Lake Okeechobee. Dail says that under the present system, of every 20 gallons of water pumped into the park 12 would be drawn off the farmers' land.

Park officials argue that the water-release scheduling was inadequate in any case. They claim that at the same time the park was getting its 10 cubic feet per second this spring another 1,000 cubic feet per second was being dumped into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean through canals and rivers. This dumping is done to lower the level of Lake Okeechobee and lessen flood danger before the rains come this month.

One thing seems obvious: whatever the original intention, the $381 million system, as it now functions, is not helping the park. Meanwhile the Corps of Engineers, operating on a $205,000 appropriation from Congress, has been making a study of the situation. The corps is still three years away from reaching a solution. More money must be appropriated for further study.

That Florida should have a water problem is a mystery to outsiders. It is a mystery to most insiders, too. Water once overflowed from Lake Okeechobee to spread out over the Everglades in a vast, moving sheet that formed the all-important brackish zone along the coast.

This sheet of shallow water moving across the southernmost tip of the U.S. mainland became the life stream of a host of natural wonders ranging from shrimp to sea cows, from snow-white egrets to flaming-pink roseate spoonbills, from gaily colored tree snails to alligators and from an endless sweep of tough saw grass to dainty wild orchids, which festoon massive mahogany trees.

It was to protect these and other wonders that 500,000 acres of the watery land was set aside in 1947 as the Everglades National Park. This was less than a generation ago, and in that short time impairment of the park has become increasingly evident. Shifts in nature are usually slow, but in recent years specialists have become aware of dwindling bird populations, changes in the flora and other evidence that something is wrong. They know that the increasing periods without water have eliminated many of the millions of minnows and frogs that were the food of tens of thousands of wading birds. It shocks even the most casual visitor to see water being pumped from wells into holes to provide a stopgap habitat for wildlife.

Now many of these visitors are writing to ask what has happened to the water. This is a hard question for park personnel to answer. It is even harder for them to explain why that big, earthen dike north of the Tamiami Trail is keeping water out of the park. There is an entire shelf of heavy volumes devoted to explaining the various components of the huge flood-control complex. All the park people can say is that when Congress set up the flood-control project it specifically included a provision that water needs of the park would be recognized. Agriculture, industry and communities are getting their share—but the park is not.

As the water has receded, alligators have become concentrated at remaining water holes, attracting after-dark poachers—who get $6 or more a hide—and necessitating more ranger patrols. The low water level also makes life easier for flower snatchers. Plant collectors of a type not above filching a rare orchid can get in to the plants and out again with less chance of apprehension.

Most of our national parks have suffered from threats of one kind or another, but in its young life the Everglades has had more than its share. It has suffered from drought and fires, and in 1960 Hurricane Donna flattened big areas of mangrove forest. The park can take these natural threats in stride, but the man-made threats are harder to meet.

While struggling to get a share of water from the north, another threat is developing on the other side of the park. A proposal has been made to build a highway across the mouth of Florida Bay from Big Pine Key, north of Key West, to Flamingo, the visitors' center in the park. Conservationists say that if the loss of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee harms the area, the closing of the other side with a road embankment would finish it. Civic groups and conservation organizations are fighting this project on the ground that it would turn the bay into a briny, fishless basin.

Everybody seems to agree, in principle, that the park should have a share of that Flood Control District water. It is hoped that while the long study continues changes in the interim schedule will be made—starting with next year's dry season—that will bring a heavier flow into the parched Everglades, which cries for water, and not into the deeps of the Atlantic Ocean, which has plenty.

Since its beginning, the National Park Service has never lost a park. Some of those most concerned say that, in view of the combination of dangers, it could happen in south Florida.


ALLIGATOR TRACK (foreground) marks the drying mud that was once the bottom of a pool.