The news for Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades’ lungs and kidneys, is mixed at best. But at last we understand what’s at stake and how to heal the lake.
July 10, 2011, 9:00 a.m., and the heat makes me wonder how people can live in South Florida in high summer. Paul Gray and I push our earmuff bands forward to hold down our hats and feel the welcome rush of cooling air as Don Fox guns his airboat out onto the heart, lungs, and kidneys of the Everglades—Lake Okeechobee.
To our south, hidden by 467,200 acres of dry lake bottom and shallow water draped over the curve of the earth, lie Florida’s ever-thirsty sugarcane plantations, Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park, and Florida Bay. To our north the lake collects the now-feeble flow of its major artery, the damaged but recovering Kissimmee River. All this is part of the “greater Everglades.” Earth has no other place like this 4.5-million-acre grassland-and-savanna landscape, with its rich mix of salt, brackish, and freshwater habitats. The greater Everglades sustains species or subspecies of at least 1,030 plants, 60 reptiles, 75 mammals, 430 fish, 345 birds, and 40 amphibians.
The lake and marsh systems have undergone astonishing recovery since I last saw them. This has not been the result of enlightened management—just the opposite. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages the lake’s inflows and outflows, and when it comes to controlling natural systems, the Corps is rarely in doubt but frequently in error.
There had been a drought in 2001, too. And in the two years that followed there had been gradual recovery. But high water from the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 erased that recovery. Until 2006 the Corps had, when possible, kept the lake so high that its submergent and emergent vegetation drowned and no sunlight reached the seedbed. The strategy was to make sure the sugar industry and Gold Coast lawns would always have lots of water. But in spring 2006 the Corps’ ancient, earthen Hoover Dike, which rings the lake, began to fail under the pressure of Hurricane Wilma’s water. So the Corps dumped billions of gallons. Then came the drought of 2007. With little water retained in the Kissimmee River floodplain (because the Corps had hacked and gouged it with drainage canals), the lake went down to 8.82 feet—a foot lower than in its recorded history.
Midges and shad are two of the lake’s most important food-chain foundations, passing their energy to small fish, to fish that eat the small fish, to turtles, alligators, and birds that eat fish of all sizes. After all the high water from the hurricanes, midge larvae went from about 10,000 per square meter to two (not 2,000—two). With dirty water again blocking sunlight, plankton disappeared and with it the planktivorous shad.
But for now at least, the midges and shad are back. Mudflats we had slogged across in 2001 clutch chartreuse carpets of wild millet, an important waterfowl staple. Young bulrushes stabilize what had been eroding edges of the marsh piled with windrows of rotting plants ripped out by waves. Across thousands of acres where we’d seen only black water, yellow blooms of American lotus wave in the hot wind. Marsh plants proliferate where we’d encountered an anaerobic witch’s brew of moldering vegetation. Alligators, turtles, and fish swirl from our path.
Everywhere we go we are surrounded by birds orbiting above us, lifting from the surface, dropping onto it, bobbing, dabbling, probing, and strutting through reborn marshes and newly oxygenated water. We count 47 bird species, including long-absent roseate spoonbills, mottled ducks, blue-winged teal, black-necked stilts, long-billed dowitchers, lesser yellowlegs, black skimmers, little and great blue herons, black-crowned night-herons, tricolored herons, great and snowy egrets, least bitterns, white pelicans, glossy and white ibises, limpkins, wood storks, and Everglade snail kites, crow-sized raptors with sharply hooked beaks. On Eagle Bay Island, lifeless in 2001, there had been 4,518 wading-bird nests in April.
Okeechobee’s recovery has made a strong impression on Nathaniel Reed, the lake’s and the Everglades’ tireless, ageless advocate, who served presidents Nixon and Ford as Assistant Secretary of the Interior and Audubon as a board member. Reed takes people on airboat rides to raise money for the Everglades Foundation. “They don’t understand why Paul Gray, Don Fox, and I get weepy at certain places,” he says. “This was all open, muddy water, and here we are going through magnificent stands of native plants. It’s hard to explain how much this means to us. It has been the most unbelievable example of nature’s forgiveness I have ever laid eyes on.”