The Everglades are the primary source of fresh water for more than 7 million people in Florida

Far from macadam, McDonald’s, and high-end malls, there’s another, ancient South Florida: sawgrass, wading herons, lurking alligators, and the stillness that comes with nature going about its timeless business. The Everglades, though protected, are only as healthy as the water that flows through them, and that water is at risk, both from pollution and development.

Once 11,000 square miles, the Everglades now cover only about 4,000 square miles from the south shores of Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Bay. Beginning in the mid-19th century, the watershed has been drained and redirected for flood control, farming, and development, and owes its fractional survival in part to being declared a national park in 1934. (It opened in 1947.) While its natural beauty and uniqueness are strong draws, it has economic value to us all: It is the primary source of fresh water for more than 7 million people in Florida, about a third of the state, and it supports industries on which we all rely.

“You can’t fill hotel rooms, build new schools, or attract residents to new homes that are built by our housing industry if you can’t supply them with water,” says Kirk Fordham, 44, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, based in Palmetto Bay. “Without that basic, elemental ingredient to economic growth, there’s really no reason to invest in the other things. Without water, we really can’t survive down here.”

The Everglades Foundation is a science-based organization that promotes a $13.4 billion federal-state restoration project for the Everglades that is designed to re-create a semblance of the system’s original water flow. That flow is critical to the health of the Everglades, not just because it fills the aquifer beneath them and gives South Florida its water supply, but also because it balances the salinity of Florida Bay. Without this equilibrium, seagrass beds become damaged, negatively affecting myriad fish such as snook, tarpon, mangrove snapper, pink shrimp, and spiny lobsters—which supply food as well as fuel a recreational fishing industry that has a $7.5 billion economic impact statewide. “We actually flush out to sea more than 1.7 billion gallons of fresh water every day, rather than storing it in the Everglades,” Fordham says. “You really have to install an artificial heart for the Everglades, so that you can mimic the water flow and storage capacity in a way that accommodates our current population and the agricultural industry.”

In turn, the quality of that water is of vital concern to Friends of the Everglades, founded by writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 1969. “There are no other Everglades in the world,” she wrote in the very first sentence of her classic 1947 book, The Everglades: River of Grass. A Minneapolis-born journalist and former Miami Herald scribe, her landmark tome was part nature writing, part Florida history, and part environmental advocacy, and it became central to American environmental literature. Friends’ first mission was to stop the construction of a jetport in the “river of grass.” The group joined a national outcry that was successful in halting the airport’s completion. “We’re little but mighty,” says Connie Washburn, the group’s current vice president of education and outreach and cofounder of its Young Friends of the Everglades educational outreach division, which teaches students about the wonders and importance of this unique area.

“Friends of the Everglades is like the mouse that roared,” says Albert Slap, 62, the organization’s general counsel and a veteran environmental attorney. “It’s a very small group that has very limited funding, but through its niche—which basically has been [focused on] water quality in the Everglades and bringing very targeted federal environmental litigation for the past 20 years—it’s been extremely effective.”

Friends maintains in ongoing court battles that the fertilizers used by regional farmers, primarily of sugar cane, release catastrophic amounts of phosphorus into the water, damaging the ecosystem. “What we learn from the Everglades is that water quality is like a temperature gauge on our own health as a society,” says Alan Farago, 57, the group’s president. “And what we are getting back from the Everglades is that we have a fever.”

Two federal cases have been central to Friends’ current battles. The first, which dates back to 1988, came out of a lawsuit the US Department of Justice brought against the state for not doing enough to limit phosphorus pollution. The resulting consent decree in 1991 led to a massive cleanup project in the 700,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) just south of Lake Okeechobee, which included the building of treatment marshes.

According to Clewiston-based United States Sugar Corporation, one of the major growers in the EAA, in the growing season last year its cane fields achieved a 79 percent reduction in phosphorus, the greatest reduction since the program was authorized by the 1994 Everglades Forever Act. “Pointing fingers and calling names isn’t going to clean one drop of water going into the Everglades,” says Judy Sanchez, the company’s senior director of corporate communications and public affairs. “On a lot of issues, we work very closely with [Friends], and we think it’s time we recognize that agriculture is playing a positive role in this.” Friends takes some credit for nudging everyone to the table.

The other case was filed in 2004 by Friends and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida against the US Environmental Protection Agency, and is designed to get the phosphorus in the treated-water marshes reduced to 10 parts per billion. State environmental officials say that above that level, harmful changes to plant and animal life begin to occur.

Slap says the two cases “are like a pair of bookends. Both are moving forward together somewhat in synergy, putting pressure on the state to do a lot more than it has been doing.” The group also is investigating the issue of methylmercury in the Everglades. Sulfur pollution from the sugar farms binds with metallic mercury left in the Everglades by coal-fired power plants, creating a poisonous compound, he says. It works its way up the food chain to fish, and thus the dinner table. “It’s highly toxic to humans, especially fetuses and young children,” he contends. “It’s not just the birds and the critters. Sugar’s pollution creates a huge human-health threat in the Everglades.”

Today Friends remains, like Douglas was herself, tiny but scrappy. The organization has one part-time staffer and only a dozen volunteer board members who work out of their homes and meet monthly. But they make their voices heard. Today, Douglas, who died at the remarkable age of 108 in May 1998, no doubt would be cheering on any group that enters the fray to keep the Everglades healthy. When it comes to the big picture, the Friends and other environmental advocates are exploring how, or even whether, urban life and Mother Nature can get along. “The battle for the Everglades is really, at its heart, a battle to see if we can organize ourselves to have both a productive economy and also an environment that will be as fruitful for future generations,” Farago says. “Marjory Stoneman Douglas had a very clear vision of the importance of the Everglades and what was needed to restore [them]. We have not strayed far from her purpose.”

Like what you're reading? Get it delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up now for our newsletters >>