Bright Lit Place

In 2000, the U.S. set out on one of the most ambitious environmental projects ever attempted: to reconnect the Everglades and make it function like it did a century ago. The plan could have given Florida a 20-year head start on climate change, but that didn't happen. Scroll down to learn more about the Everglades through a series of maps.

Listen to Podcast Episodes

Source: South Florida Management District | Davis Vegetation Map

Source: Florida Department of Environmental Protection | Land Use

History

Before the urbanization of South Florida, the Everglades provided a lush, biodiverse landscape of mangroves, marshes, grasses, and tree islands covering about 4,000 square miles.

1 of 7

Urbanization

Today, the only untouched part of the wilderness lies in Everglades National Park and covers just one fifth of the original footprint. What remains of the wetlands outside the park is now used for storage and flood control. , and is in danger of shrinking even more due to expanding development, sea rise and peat soil collapse.

2 of 7

The Liquid Heart

Historic High
Water Levels
Post-drainage
Lake Size

Lake Okeechobee provides much of the freshwater to the Everglades during the dry season. It’s also where one of the first incisions was made into the Everglades, when Hamilton Disston dredged a canal connecting the Caloosahatchee River to the lake. That opened up commerce, but also set the stage for decades of dredging and filling that scarred the swamp and hampered its ability to keep wetlands healthy.

3 of 7

A birder paddleboarding on Lake Okeechobee.

Photo by: Patrick Farrell

From Wetlands to Agriculture

Today, sugarcane fields cover about a half million acres south of Lake Okeechobee. The sugar industry expanded dramatically beginning in the 1960s, when a U.S. sugar embargo was issued after Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba.

4 of 7

Stormwater Treatment Areas

A series of landmark lawsuits over polluted water flowing into the Everglades from sugarcane fields led the state to build a series of treatment marshes. The marshes also provide flood control. So far, only one set of treatment marshes is on target to meet strict phosphorus limits, with the deadline to begin complying just two years away.

5 of 7

Worker Ingrio Lopez wades in the water while planting bulrush in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West.

Photo by: Patrick Farrell

An airboat moves through cattails and other aquatic vegetation in a stormwater treatment area.

Video by: Jenny Staletovich

Tree Islands

Tree islands used by the Miccosukee Tribe once filled the central Everglades. Water flowing slowly south from Lake Okeechobee carried sediment, helping form the islands over thousands of years. Since about 1950, half of those islands have disappeared because of water management operations.

6 of 7

Miccosukee Elder Michael Frank at his family’s tree island in the Everglades.

Video by: Patrick Farrell

Tamiami Trail South

To increase the amount of freshwater flowing into the Everglades from Shark River and Taylor Slough, a series of bridges and culverts are being constructed along the Tamiami Trail. That could help revive southern marshes and Florida Bay. But restoration still lacks the storage and cleaning capacity to provide water during the dry season.

7 of 7

Want more of Jenny's reporting? Sign up for WLRN's environment newsletter Field Notes.

Sign Up