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Army Corps of Engineers & the Florida Everglades

Updated: Aug 30, 2020

Florida Everglades photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

E&E News recently reached out to us for an upcoming article on the Florida Everglades and soil subsidence. An editor interviewed our colleague Estus Whitfield, who created Florida’s Save Our Everglades program in 1983 and administered the state environmental impact statement review process for 28 years.

Estus joined Dawson & Associates in 2008.

Estus has extensive knowledge on Florida’s environment and given the Everglades’ ecological importance, we’re passing along a summary of the historical context he provided:

I. Background on Army Corps of Engineers involvement in Florida Everglades

Florida gained statehood in 1845 and first State legislature declared the Everglades ‘wholly valueless’ and asked Congress to appoint engineers to examine the Everglades with a view towards reclamation.

During the 1880s, Florida gave state land in the Everglades region to various private entities in an effort to drain the Everglades. Lowering the level of Lake Okeechobee was also a key element, though this had limited success.

From the late 1800's through the early 20th Century, Florida supported private efforts to reclaim the Everglades. The Caloosahatchee River was improved from Ft. Myers to Lake Okeechobee. Private owners built the North New River Canal from Lake Okeechobee to Lake Worth. This connected the Gulf and Atlantic; in addition to providing Okeechobee drainage, this allowed navigation across the state.

But in 1926 and 1928, hurricanes caused major damage across the region with more than 2,500 deaths. As a result, Florida asked the Army Corps of Engineers to construct levees around the lake. A 1930 Federal law authorized construction of 67.8 miles of levee along the south shore and 15.7 miles along the north shore. The Corps finished this project in 1938.

But in 1947, 2 hurricanes devastated South Florida and as a result the State in 1949 created the Central and Southern Flood Control District (C&SFFCD), now the South Florida Water Management District, to act as local sponsor of Corps projects.

This is important because the Corps, with C&SFFCD as local sponsor, created more than 720 miles of levees and about 1,000 miles of canals. This became the basis of the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project.

II. Impact of water management on soil subsidence

Our experience with the Everglades suggests that improving water management can lead to a 50% reduction in soil subsidence. Briefly, keeping water levels higher reduces oxidation of the muck. Sugar cane can tolerate higher water levels than vegetables. Also, shallower tilling and fewer plow passes over the soil means less disturbing of the muck.

III. Private draining and impact on Lake Okeechobee & the Everglades

Remember that Florida considered drainage of Lake Okeechobee as key to Everglades reclamation. That’s why all major canals originate in the Lake. This drainage began in the 1880's and revved up in the early 1900's. The Corps of Engineers’ efforts that began around 1949 have been incredibly successful in reclaiming and draining the Everglades.

The State of Florida, through the South Florida Water management and is predecessor agency, has been partners with the Corps of Engineers since the Corps’ major involvement began. That partnership continues today with the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dawson & Associates.


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