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Original Issue

Anatomy Of A Man-made Drought

Somebody did something about the weather in Florida; now a looming disaster demands that it be undone

Over the past few weeks, a growing number of Floridians have been jolted by a warning from Arthur Marshall, a 63-year-old ecologist who is widely regarded as having the keenest insights into that state's multiple environmental problems. Marshall's dismaying thesis is this: Drought conditions in Kissimmee Valley, which suffered a "once in every 700 years drought" last year, are going to get worse. Marshall asserts that last year was not in fact a meteorological aberration, but a predictable consequence of the land development and the drainage of wetlands in the Everglades and the Kissimmee River basin that have disrupted the normal rain cycle.

The gist of the problem, says Marshall, is this: Before development changed the South Florida landscape on a huge scale, the slowly moving sheet of water that annually flowed from the Kissimmee River basin south into Lake Okeechobee and then spilled into the Everglades was the key to the region's abundant rainfall. During the rainy season, which runs from June into September, the summer sun would heat up this shallow sheet water to approximately 14°C above its nighttime temperature, and tremendous amounts of water would ascend into the atmosphere by evaporation and transpiration from the lush plant life growing in the marshy environment. By two in the afternoon, the buildup in the atmosphere was so great that heavy rain would fall. Almost all the water that had risen from the wetlands would come down again, and with it rain from vapor that had moved in over the peninsula from both the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Now, however, sheet-flow water isn't present in sufficient quantities to initiate the "rain machine" the way it used to. As a consequence of the disruption to the hydrologic cycle, fish and wildlife populations are going to pot; the Everglades National Park is "on the brink of death" (to quote a recent statement by Nathaniel P. Reed, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and National Parks in the Nixon and Ford administrations); the $1 billion-a-year sugar industry is threatened not only with loss of crops but also loss of farmland by fire and oxidation; and salt water intruding from the Atlantic can foul wells in the Biscayne Aquifer, the only natural source of potable water for more than three million people in Miami and other Gold Coast cities. Recently the South Florida Water Management District, which ordered a 25% cut in water use last year, announced it might have to reduce use this year by 60%. In short, South Florida is in a man-made meteorological, ecological and economic box from which it will be damned difficult to escape.

Marshall's thesis is taken very seriously by scientists who have independently investigated aspects of it in their own research, some of which Marshall has drawn upon to arrive at his overall conclusions. "That's a very true picture," says Garald G. Parker of Tampa, who explored and named both the Biscayne and Floridan aquifers while he was with the U.S. Geological Survey and who later served as the chief hydrologist with the Southwest Florida Water Management District. "Man-made alterations and drainage on this scale have certainly accomplished these results. The Gulf Coast is affected, too. It is a serious situation." Patrick Gannon, a meteorologist who wrote a doctoral dissertation at the University of Miami entitled "The Influence of Surface Properties and Clouds on the South Florida Sea Breeze," says, "We have introduced significant changes in the daily mesoscale [local weather patterns] in the last century. This entire cycle has been altered, weakened and shifted. It's radically different now than it was in 1900, and it appears from all the research that we're setting up a heat regime rather than a rainy regime in the summer period."

It finally rained heavily in South Florida last week, but the three to four inches that fell in the interior were literally a drop in the bucket in a region where one-sixth of an inch of water evaporates into the air every day. Gannon attributes last week's rain to a cold front coming down from the north, a synoptic (large-scale) disturbance. "The basic problem is in the region's long-term summer rainfall mesoscale process," he says. "South Florida is going to be faced with a long-term drought potential that is only temporarily alleviated by transitory synoptic disturbances, such as deep mid-latitude troughs in the Gulf of Mexico and tropical storms."

Last week, state politicians were paying heed to Marshall's thesis. State Senator John Vogt, chairman of his chamber's Natural Resources Committee, had breakfast one morning in Tallahassee with a party that included Johnny Jones, executive director of the 45,000-member Florida Wildlife Federation and a close associate of Marshall's, who is a director-at-large for the F.W.F. Jones was in Tallahassee pushing for restoration of the Kissimmee River and its floodplain. Six years ago, he had successfully lobbied through a bill calling for just that. Before the once-meandering river was turned into an aquatic highway by the state and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the late 1950s, the Kissimmee played host to one million waterfowl a year. "After channelization, we counted just eight ducks," says Jones. "Eight, as in one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Eight!" Channelization also ruined the superb largemouth bass and bream fishing, and with the wetlands gone, pasturing cattle took to the river to cool off in the summer heat. "A cow doesn't get out of the water to take a crap," Jones says, "and just one of them puts out wastes equal to 18 people."

Although Senator Vogt was aware of the rain-machine thesis, Jones went over it briefly at breakfast and then pointed out to the senator that last year only 71,000 acre-feet of water had passed through the channelized river into Lake Okeechobee, as compared with an average annual inflow of 1.2 million acre-feet from 1935 to 1950. Lake Okeechobee, which encompasses 730 square miles, is the surface storage basin for South Florida's water. It is now three feet lower than it was at this time last year, and last year is acknowledged as the worst in recorded history. Jones also told Vogt that annual rainfall in St. Lucie County in southeast Florida had declined from 68 inches in 1950 to 38 inches following the draining of more than 50,000 acres of wetlands.

Although the 1976 bill authorizing restoration of the Kissimmee River basin had passed, nothing had been done because the Corps was, in Jones's words, "dragging its feet." Jones asked Vogt, "John, if the feds don't get off their butts, will you initiate legislation using state funds from the Conservation and Recreation Lands bill and the Save Our Rivers bill to start filling that ditch?" Vogt said he would. "Florida just can't support unlimited development and drainage of wetlands," the senator said. "What frightens me is that all the great deserts of the world lie at this latitude. I just hope Florida won't become a desert." (One development that need not frighten Vogt is the new TPC golf course described on the preceding pages. Marshall, who has visited the course, says the land has been used with the ecological health of the area in mind.)

That afternoon Jones conferred with Governor Bob Graham, briefing him on Marshall's findings. In that meeting Graham reaffirmed his support for restoration of the Kissimmee. "The old Bob Graham is returning," Jones said afterward. "He was an outstanding conservation senator. When he became governor, he appeared to have lost interest in the environment, but in the last year he has taken the leadership role on issues like the Kissimmee. We appreciate that."

The next day Jones, Marshall and Nat Reed drove to Clewiston on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee to discuss restoration of the Kissimmee with John B. Boy, the president of U.S. Sugar Corp., and Dalton Yancey, general manager of the Florida Sugar Cane League. Environmentalists and sugar growers have often gone head-to-head on issues, but, as Jones put it, they were all in the same boat now because of the drought, and he wanted their support for restoration of the Kissimmee. Last year Florida surpassed Hawaii as the No. 1 state in sugar production, with more than a million tons. Based almost exclusively in southern Florida, the sugar industry farms 349,000 acres of black muck that was formed by 5,000 years of decaying wetlands vegetation. If this muck doesn't get an abundant supply of water it dries out like talcum powder and burns when touched with a match. Last fall drought conditions were so bad, the fearful growers drew on this spring's allotment of water from the South Florida Water Management District in order to be able to plant the current crop. They had to gamble in doing that, because they might have lost not only the crop but also their soil to fire. Now, there is fear of reduced yields this year because the growers will have to depend almost solely on rain; the allotment of water left for them in Lake Okeechobee is not enough to meet the growers' irrigation needs.

After the meeting, Boy and Yancey remained uncommitted to restoration of the Kissimmee, but Jones has hopes that the growers at least won't oppose it. Boy and Yancey were also skeptical about Marshall's rain-machine thesis, but as Marshall said, "If I were the president of U.S. Sugar, I'd sure as hell wonder why none of my scientists had told me about the importance of the Kissimmee River basin to rain in South Florida. The crop depends on rain, whether it falls on the land or comes from Lake Okeechobee as irrigation water."

Marshall's deep involvement with the Florida environment began in 1960 when he became the state administrator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He left Fish and Wildlife in 1970 to devote his time to the study of Florida ecosystems. He was a professor at the University of Miami and later at the University of Florida before becoming a private consultant in 1974.

Systems is the key word for Marshall. "If you don't synthesize knowledge, scientific journals become spare-parts catalogues for machines that are never built," he says. "Until isolated and separated pieces of information are assimilated by the human mind, we will continue to rattle around aimlessly. I am as good a diagnostician of ecosystems as any good medical diagnostician is of human beings, and I'm not on any damn ego trip when I say that. I read medical journals to see how medical diagnosticians work. Sometimes I wish I didn't have the knowledge that I do, because I can get pretty damn glum."

To Marshall, the Kissimmee lakes near Orlando, the lower Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades are all a single system. "Not enough people realize it's all of a piece," he says. "I didn't invent the whole system. I was able to observe it long enough to understand its processes and to recognize how they work together, the sheet flow, the muck, wetlands vegetation, recharge of the Biscayne Aquifer and the production of marine fisheries. The only source of water is rainfall, and it only comes in a four- to five-month period. You have to extend the life of that water. That's what the system did originally. It was one of the most efficient systems you could imagine on the face of the earth. Now we have to repair it."

According to Marshall, the upper Kissimmee lakes are in trouble. Lake Tohopekaliga receives 20 million gallons a day of treated sewage effluent, and its sport fishery is headed for collapse. To an extent, this lake has acted as a buffer for the lower lakes, but this cannot continue indefinitely. Already Lake Okeechobee is becoming oxygen deficient. South of the lake, agriculture is in obvious trouble, as is the Biscayne Aquifer. Last year the South Florida Water Management District had to pump 325,000 acre-feet of water from the lake into the coastal canals to fend off saltwater intrusion. A soon-to-be-published paper by Jim Kushlan of the Everglades National Park staff discloses that the population of freshwater wading birds in the park has declined by at least 90% over the past 40 years, with decreased water flow and loss of wetlands playing critical roles. Chief hydrologist Dr. Peter Rosendahl reports that the park will shortly make a request to the South Florida Water Management District and the Corps for an additional 450,000 acre-feet of water, more than double what the park has been getting annually.

Florida Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands area to the northwest are suffering greatly. "Fifty species of marine fish and shellfish utilize the shallow water of the lower Everglades," Marshall says. "The hatching is timed to coincide with the start of the rainy season in June. The snook hatch in the new moon in June, and that's it. The snook is a classic case of dependency on the sheet flow. They spawn in the saltwater passes in the Ten Thousand Islands area. After the eggs hatch, the larvae move up toward fresh water, and they're always in the top half inch of the water column. They go into the shallow sheet-flow water and stay in the Everglades through the winter and feed. There used to be a plentiful food supply delivered to them by the sheet flow. It was such a natural time clock. Then in the spring, when the snook were five or six inches long, they would come back down. But now that's all changed. We have cut the shallow-water acreage in the Everglades in half, and we have also cut the time in half. Instead of the juvenile snook having nine to 11 months in sheet flow, it is down to four or five months.

"During World War II," Marshall continues, "the state allowed commercial fishermen to use huge seines for snook, and in one set of a net they could get up to 5,000 fish, averaging two pounds apiece. About six weeks ago, I went over to the Department of Natural Resources marine lab in St. Pete to see Dr. Gerard Bruger, who has done six years of tagging studies of snook, and he told me that the total adult population of snook in the Ten Thousand Islands area is only about 30,000. That ain't nothin'! Bruger calls the snook an endangered species."

Last December, guides from Islamorada in the Keys and fishermen working with the American League of Anglers, a national organization of sports fishermen, conducted a semiscientific study by fishing Florida Bay intensively. The bay was once one of the most productive bodies of water in the world, but a follow-up report by the A.L.A. stated that the 810-square-mile bay has been hit so hard "that it's a question of whether or not it can ever be restored." There were few redfish, sea trout were even scarcer, and no bonefish at all were caught. The A.L.A. also noted that commercial catches of silver mullet had declined precipitously, dropping from just under 2.5 million pounds in 1975 to less than 188,000 pounds in 1980.

Marshall believes that the fishing can be restored in Florida Bay, but radical change will be required, beginning with restoration of the floodplain of the Kissimmee. Basic to all South Florida, he says, is the reinitiation of the "rain machine." Despite backing from many scientists, Marshall is well aware that his thesis has critics, including Jack Maloy, the executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, and Dr. Patrick McCaffrey, staff director of the Kissimmee Coordinating Council. In fact, Marshall takes heart from the criticism. "I was ridiculed so many times in the past when I turned out to be right, I've gotten to the point where if I don't get ridiculed, I wonder if I'm doing something wrong," he says.

Even though Marshall had put together the South Florida ecosystem in his mind 10 years ago, he didn't realize the full significance of the rain machine until last year, when he found a copy of an out-of-print report, Water Resources of Southeastern Florida, written by Parker and other hydrologists and published in 1955 by the U.S. Geological Survey. Marshall began comparing data from it with other studies, including Gannon's dissertation and a 1972 report by a planning engineer at the South Florida Water Management District, on whose board Marshall served in 1972 and '73. Last Jan. 12 in Palm Beach, Marshall gave a speech on his findings at a symposium on the Everglades, and two weeks later he had a meeting with Governor Graham.

Parker and Gannon are all for the restoration of the Kissimmee, but Gannon, who spent eight years as a meteorologist with a federal task force doing research on cloud seeding before becoming a professor at Lyndon State College in Vermont last year, points out that the rain machine of South Florida has been permanently impaired in part by "the capping of both coasts with concrete at the same time the Kissimmee was going down the tube," which retards the evapo-transpiration process.

If Gannon had it within his power, he would put an immediate stop to development. For instance, he would reflood Golden Gate Estates, a huge tract of land east of Naples that was drained but never built on. "To call for cloud seeding or water conservation is not the same as doing all-out research on the causes or potential causes of the problem," Gannon says. "The most reliable and sensible way to demonstrate the effect of surface alterations is through numerical modeling. You can't observe rainfall in 1900, but you can numerically simulate 1900, the present time and what is likely to happen in the year 2000 or 2030 at the present rate of land alteration." Gannon believes that it is important that Florida do this so the public can realize what has been happening to the state.

Marshall agrees. The vitality of the state is at stake, and as Jones says, "Art Marshall is more than an ecologist. He's a prophet. He has been right every time when he has called the shots. The South Florida Management District has been light-years behind him in knowledge and understanding of the system. If Marshall had been wrong once, I might not have the faith I have in him, but he has been right, right, right, and the people and politicians had damn well better listen to what he says."



Draining and channelization of the Kissimmee basin is drying up Lake Okeechobee and Florida's southern wetlands (in ocher), destroying the trigger for the "rain machine."







West Palm Beach


Florida Bay



Ground fires, literally burning soil, are now frequent occurrences in former wetlands.



Marshall (left) and Jones: the discoverer and prime messenger of the devastating news.



Before and after: The channelized river (right) runs by an old Kissimmee meander.