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A Region Under Stress-- Home
A Region Under Stress-- Introduction

Environmental Setting-- The Natural System
Watersheds and Coastal Waters

Environmental Setting-- The Altered System
Drainage and Development
Public Lands
Water Use
Water Budget

Water and Environmental Stress
Loss of Wetlands and Wetland Functions
Soil Subsidence
Degradation of Water Quality
Mercury Contamination
Effects on Estuaries, Bays, and Coral Reefs

Summary and Research Needs

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U.S. Department of the Interior
U.S. Geological Survey
Circular 1134

The South Florida Environment - A Region Under Stress

Summary and Research Needs

When Europeans first arrived in south Florida, the region was a lush, subtropical wilderness of pine forest, hardwood hammocks, swamps, marshes, estuaries, and bays. Wetlands dominated the landscape. The region contained one of the largest wetlands in the continental United States, the Everglades, which was part of the larger Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades watershed that extended more than half the length of the Florida Peninsula. The Everglades and the Big Cypress Swamp stretched as a continuous wetland across the southern part of the peninsula south of Lake Okeechobee. These wetlands and the entire watershed provided the freshwater that sustained highly productive estuaries and bays of the region.

Photo of people on a fan boat

Drainage of the Everglades watershed began in the early 1880's and continued into the 1960's. The first drainage canals were dug in the upper Kissimmee River and between Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River. Beginning with the Miami River in 1903, canals were cut through the Atlantic Coastal Ridge and into the northern Everglades. By the late 1920's, five canals had been dug between Lake Okeechobee and the Atlantic Ocean--one that passed north of the Everglades and connected the lake with the St. Lucie River and four that passed through the Everglades. Drainage opened land for agriculture to develop south of Lake Okeechobee. In the late 1920's, a low muck levee was constructed along the southern and southwestern shore of the lake to prevent flooding, but during the hurricanes of 1926 and 1928, the levee was breached, which resulted in destruction of property and lives. In response to these catastrophes, the Federal Government initiated flood-control measures that included construction of levees around the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee and enlargement of the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie Canals.

Drainage and development altered most of south Florida and caused severe environmental changes. These changes include large losses of soil through oxidation and subsidence, degradation of water quality, nutrient enrichment, contamination by pesticides and mercury, fragmentation of the landscape, large losses of wetlands and wetland functions, and widespread invasion by exotic species. Additionally, the large and growing human population and the active agricultural development in the region are in intense competition with the natural system for freshwater resources.

Recently, a consensus has begun to emerge among Federal and State agencies, as well as among environmental groups, that the Everglades should be restored to patterns similar to the original system. For concerned parties to discuss, let alone to implement, such recommendations requires a substantial increase in available scientific data and understanding of Everglades hydrology, geology, and ecology. The investigations needed to support restoration, which have been developed by the Science Sub-Group of the South Florida Ecosystem Task force, include hydrologically characterizing the predrainage system and comparing it to the present system; determining the key characteristics of the former natural hydrologic system that supported the rich diversity and abundance of wildlife that has been lost; designing structural and operational modifications of the Central and Southern Florida Project for Flood Control and other Purposes (C&SF) that would recreate the key characteristics of the natural hydrologic system; assessing the hydrologic and ecological results of these modifications through pre- and post- modification monitoring; and modifying the design of the C&SF project based on the assessment and monitoring of the hydrologic and ecological results of the changes.

The USGS is providing some of the scientific information necessary for protection and restoration in south Florida through several of its programs, which include the South Florida Initiative and the NAWQA Program. The U.S. Geological Survey is coordinating these efforts with other Federal agencies through the South Florida Ecosystem Interagency Working Group and the Science Sub-Group and through regularly scheduled liaison meetings of the Southern Florida NAWQA study unit. The South Florida Initiative is a collaborative effort by the U.S. Geological Survey, the former National Biological Service, and other Federal and State agencies to provide scientific insight into conflicting land-use demands and water supply issues in the south Florida, Florida Bay, Florida Keys ecosystem (McPherson and others, 1995). The proposed U.S. Geological Survey contributions include the following:

  • Assessing the availability of water for competing requirements (public water supply, agriculture, fisheries, ecosystem protection/restoration) in south Florida and the Florida Bay area by measuring and modeling the movement of water.

  • Assessing the water quality within south Florida, Florida Bay, and the Keys/ Reefs by collaborating with other planned efforts and focusing on the additional needs for information, such as identifying processes that transform and transport nutrients and mercury.

  • Determining the "natural state" of the south Florida regional ecosystem, which include the estuaries, bays, and coral reefs and their watershed.

  • Developing a comprehensive and readily accessible quality-assured relational data base for spatial and point data, which include water, geology, soils, topography, vegetation, and remotely sensed data to support scientific investigation.

Regardless of the information obtained and the effort expended, the success of ecosystem restoration is uncertain because of the complexity of the interaction between the biological and abiotic components of the system. In writing about the Everglades, Davis and Ogden (1994, p. 789) state "This uncertainty of information becomes another force in support of a broad restoration premise; restoration of hydrology and natural environmental fluctuations is an appropriate target in the stepwise and still imprecise process of attempting to produce ecological restoration."

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