National Geographic : 1972 Jan
that nature built here, and the system that man has replaced it with, are both under stress. Something has to give. Florida is everyone's second state, and what happens to the Everglades is of national significance." I grew up near Miami, and I was well aware of the area's cyclical wet and dry seasons. I saw, too, the demands put on the environment by phenomenal industrial and housing develop ment since World War II. This beautiful part of the world had been pushed to the brink of ecological death by men who believe that nature has an infinite capacity to give and forgive. Water-How Much and for Whom? South Florida's crisis is water-how it is to be managed, and for what purpose. Few places in the world were so well endowed with water, and few have stretched that endowment so danger ously far.* Last year the region's history finally caught up with it. A series of disastrous events began in 1970. Plentiful rains had fallen in late spring, and billions of gallons, as usual, had been dumped into the Everglades, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico through drainage canals, as normal flood-control practice. But the summer rains stopped early. In the fall the seasonal heavy showers did not arrive. Then the real drought set in. Very little rain fell in the winter and early spring of 1971. Over the past 31 years south Florida's average rainfall from October through April had been 14.02 inches. Last winter it was 5.05 inches, the lowest ever measured. Water holes that carry animal life through normal dry periods began to disappear. Ground cracked and wildlife fled to new holes. Those also dried up. Still no rain came, and the water table continued to drop. Lake Okeechobee, a principal reservoir for the Everglades, fell steadily from around 15 feet above sea level to only 10.40 feet-a new low reading for May and near the all-time recorded low of 10.14 feet. Then the fires started. There have always been fires in the Everglades. They are necessary to the life cycle, clearing old growth to make room for young saw grass, the ashes releasing potash to enrich the soil. But the fires of 1971 were different from those of the past, both in extent and lasting damage. Of the nearly 500 fires flaring in three south Florida counties over the first five months of 1971, all but nine were set, accident ally or deliberately, by man. The effect was devastating. Before man's arrival, when lightning was the only arsonist, the flames swept across the tops of the saw grass, because the plant roots were in water. But development has drained large areas, and today's fires bite deeply into the dried muck, the soil itself, for it is flammable. "The ultimate damage to this state by muck burns can never *See "Threatened Glories of Everglades National Park," by Frederick Kent Truslow and Frederick G. Vosburgh, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, October 1967. Red death rampages through Big Cypress Swamp in south-central Florida, ravaging one of the Nation's last virgin stands of bald cypress. Parched by the drought and drained further by housing developments that invade its flanks, the swamp normally supplies about half the water that forms the lifeblood of Everglades National Park.