Environmental overview

The Everglades are a "River of Grass."

From its headwaters in Lake Okeechobee, water flows almost imperceptibly through hundreds of miles of quiet grasslands to the ocean. In the summer, the water runs deep, swelling up over the roots of thirsty trees, sinking down into the bedrock to provide water for thirsty humans. In the winter, the waters recede and larger animals, like white-tailed deer, return to the once-muddy ground.

The Everglades are the lifeline of South Florida. At one time, the peninsula was too marshy to be inhabitable, but today, more than 5 million people live south of Lake Okeechobee. They siphon off the freshwater from the Everglades, encroach upon the marsh and slowly choke the Everglades to death.

Human development is not the only threat to the Everglades. The environment is also endangered by human consumption.

Farmers - especially on sugar plantations - use fertilizers that run off into the ground and seep into the water that supplies the Everglades. The runoff often contains high levels of phosphorous, which can be dangerous to wildlife.

When scientists examine dead animals in the Everglades, they often discover high levels of mercury in the animals' bodies - an unexplained phenomenon. Most scientists hypothesize that the mercury found in panthers comes from the mercury found in fish, who absorb the mercury-laden water.

Human development
As developed areas on Florida's east and west coasts continue to expand toward the middle, the Everglades continue to shrink.

As people drain the Everglades and transform them into habitable land, the "River of Grass" is depleted and slowly suffocated.

During the 1960s, the Everglades were cut off by large earthen dikes, designed to rein in the water and keep the growing suburbs dry. But by constraining the water, the natural flow of the Everglades was altered, making some sections more flooded than they should have been and making others too dry.

In 1999, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed the Florida Forever program into law -- a $3 billion effort to restore some of the natural flow to the water in the 'Glades. Of course, this doesn't mean that western suburbs will be flooded to bring back wildlife. But the law does make important strides in restoring the Everglades to a natural state.

Foreign plants
Cattails, melaleuca, Australian pine and Brazilian pepper are the four worst offenders of foreign plant species introduced into the Everglades.

• Cattails may look harmless, but they are one of the Everglades' worst enemies. The cattails group together over watery areas, forming a thick cover that blocks sunlight and uses up oxygen in the water. And because cattails feed on phosphorous - a nutrient that farmers and homeowners use to keep crops and lawns healthy - the plants continue to multiply.

• Melaleuca trees are notorious for soaking up a lot of water, which is why they were introduced from Australia at the turn of the century as part of a plan to drain the Everglades. Unfortunately, the trees spread quickly, overtaking resources used by native plants. And when melaleuca are cut down, their seeds spread, making the melaleuca even more prevalent.

• Australian pines love to live in areas that have been damaged by storms, which makes them especially suited to South Florida. The trees were introduced from Australia and the East Indies in the late 1800s and now are found all over the area's shorelines.

• Brazilian peppers also thrive on disturbed soils. With the explosion of development in South Florida in the 1900s, the plant spread in the damaged soil and moved into the national parks.

The U.S. Congress has recently joined in the fight to protect and restore the Everglades.

In 1999, the Clinton administration proposed a plan to give the remaining Everglades much-needed water stolen away by South Florida's vast canal-and-dike drainage apparatus. The earth-moving projects it mapped out would create ways to capture and store a majority of the storm water now flushed away into the ocean.

The plan, spearheaded by the Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District, also would generate water to meet the needs of the region's growing population through 2050.

An Everglades restoration bill passed the House in 1999, and in June 2000, the Senate passed a variation on Clinton's plan, approving a $7.8 billion expenditure for Everglades restoration.

The measure contains $1.4 billion worth of projects to nurture South Florida's famous marsh, a first installment on a massive environmental public works program that would build reservoirs, tear down levees, elevate part of the Tamiami Trail and drill hundreds of water-storage wells.

The overall plan would eliminate some 240 miles of levees and canals, but also add new water-control features around the perimeter of the Everglades to beef up the current man-made drainage system that keeps it on life-support.

In 1999, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed the Florida Forever bill, which designates $2 billion over the next 10 years to pay for restoration.

Sun-Sentinel reporter Neil Santaniello contributed to this report. He can be reached at or 561-243-6625.