In May 2016, thick mats of toxic blue-green algae began choking the St. Lucie River on southeast Florida's Treasure Coast. Residents complained of rashes, scratchy throats, and an overpowering “dead fish odor.” The bloom later spread through the St. Lucie Inlet to the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in history. The Washington Post compared the algae to "chunky guacamole" and "a festering, infected sore.” All barrier-island beaches were closed just days before the July 4th holiday weekend. “This is our Deepwater Horizon,” a local official told hundreds of residents packed into an emergency meeting in the quaint tourist town of Stuart.
Unlike the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, however, “Mean Green 2016” was not the result of an accidental leak or blowout. Nor was it a natural disaster, like the cyclones that regularly pummel Florida’s coastline. It was simply one more in a long history of man-made environmental crises in South Florida, all stemming from one act of stunning technological hubris: the construction of one of the planet’s most ambitious flood-control systems in the Florida Everglades, a vast wetland on a low-lying peninsula in a subtropical hurricane alley.
In the mid-twentieth century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed a sprawling hydraulic infrastructure to promote industrial sugarcane production and urban development in the seasonally inundated floodplain of Lake Okeechobee. Today, two large, vertically integrated corporations grow cane to feed their refineries on a thousand square miles of drained and irrigated peat soil along the Lake’s southern shore, and seven million people are packed into a hundred-mile swath of urban sprawl blanketing the east coast from Palm Beach to Homestead.
The problem with Everglades flood control is that it worked too well, enabling explosive growth far beyond what its planners anticipated -- and what the infrastructure can deliver. A system designed to protect South Florida against the impacts of an extreme climate has, instead, generated a severe crisis of sustainability that is undermining the well-being of one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.
Since the late 1970s, billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent by state and federal government agencies seeking to mitigate the collateral damage of Everglades flood control. These efforts culminated in the world’s most ambitious “ecosystem restoration” program, enacted by Congress in 2000. Twenty years since that milestone, thanks to the astonishing political influence of "Big Sugar," virtually none of the program has been implemented. Meanwhile, climate change and sea-level rise have made Miami “the most vulnerable major coastal city in the world.”
In Waters of Destiny: Surviving Flood Control and Big Sugar in South Florida, I tell the remarkable story of how South Florida was engineered into a state of extreme precarity, how scores of committed activists and professionals have worked for decades to avert this slow-motion disaster, why they are failing, and why all Americans – not just those who live, work, or play in the Sunshine State – should be very worried.
Waters of Destiny is based on ten years of in-depth ethnographic and historical research, supported by the National Science Foundation LTER program, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the University of Florida, and the Escape to Create creative residency program. The manuscript is nearing completion. Stay tuned for publishing news!
Saltwater is contaminating the aquifer that supplies drinking water to over six million residents. Everglades National Park is in “critical” and “deteriorating” condition. An aging earthen dam encircling the 700-square-mile Lake O is at “extreme high risk” of catastrophic failure. Algae blooms and seagrass die-offs repeatedly ravage not only the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries but also the world-renowned sport-fishing grounds of Florida Bay, and the "Jewel of Miami," Biscayne Bay.