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 “sulfur-ish, dead fish odor.” In late June, the bloom spread through the St. Lucie Inlet to the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in history. “The goop has been likened to the texture of chunky guacamole and compared to a festering, infected sore,” the Washington Post reported all too vividly. Local officials had to close all barrier-island beaches just days before the July 4th holiday weekend. “This is our Deepwater Horizon,” a local official told hundreds of residents packed into an early-morning emergency meeting in the popular tourist town 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 hurricanes that regularly pummel Florida’s coastline. It was simply one more in a long history of man-made environmental disasters in South Florida, all stemming from of one of the most colossally ill-conceived acts of technological hubris in human history: the radical transformation of one of the planet’s largest wetland ecosystems – the Florida Everglades – by means of one of the planet’s most ambitious flood-control systems.
In the mid-twentieth century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers installed a massive hydraulic infrastructure to promote agricultural and urban development in the seasonally inundated floodplain of Lake Okeechobee. This system served its purpose brilliantly. Today, industrial sugarcane plantations flourish 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 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.
Saltwater is contaminating the aquifer that supplies drinking water to over six million residents. America's only subtropical national park is in “critical” and “deteriorating” condition. An aging earthen dam on the second-biggest freshwater lake in the United States 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 Keys.
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, virtually none of the program has been implemented. In the meantime, climate change and sea-level rise have made Miami “the most vulnerable major coastal city in the world.”
In Waters of Destiny, 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. This is a story about an impaired ecosystem, but more than that it is about the enduring legacies of imperialism, the antidemocratic consequences of oligopoly capitalism, the self-devouring hubris of industrial society, and the awesome power of those forces of nature that will ever remain beyond our control.
Waters of Destiny is based on ten years of in-depth ethnographic and historical research, including 150 interviews with every major stakeholder in South Florida water politics. My research was 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!