National Geographic : 1972 Jan
To irrigate or drain, depending on the season, farmers in south-central Florida are permitted to dig their own canals and connect them to larger existing channels (left). These marshy fields south of Lake Okeechobee will sprout with sugarcane. Agricultural experts fear that in less than 30 years overfarming of the Everglades area will make the muck too shallow for profitable cultivation. Ladder to nowhere on a channel marker attests to the critically low state of Lake Okeechobee. During last year's drought the lake shrank to 10.40 feet above sea level, near its all-time low mark of 10.14. With heavy rains later in the year this major reservoir for the Everglades crept back toward the high-water maximum of 15.5 feet. Levees now under construction will impound two more feet of water. New roads checkerboard a sector of southwestern Florida where houses will soon rise. On the fringe of Big Cypress Swamp, de velopment firms have dug drainage canals that low ered the water table by two to four feet. Grazing cattle dot grass lands crisscrossed with drainage canals. The farm ing explosion worries Flor ida hydrologist Garald G. Parker. "If we continue to farm the Everglades, we lose them," he contends. "The only solution I see, and one that probably will not be politically practical, is to buy out the farmers, close up the big drainage outlets, and leave the res toration to nature."