Urban Development and the Everglades

This topic submitted by Dustin Weida ( weidadr@miamioh.edu) at 5:22 PM on 6/7/06.

A sobering view of a Two-toed Sloth as it makes its way along utility lines on our way to Monteverde Preserve. This is what can happen to animals faced with disappearing habitat.

Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University

The area in southern Florida known as the Everglades in is one of the most unique ecosystems in the world. This large fresh water supply has been providing water for the inhabitants of the area, both plant and animal, for millions of years. When human activity in the area began to increase and disrupt the natural cycle, the Everglades’ natural resources began to decline. I believe the root of this problem lies at the hands of humans and on the continual land development. One of the most severe components contributing to the problem is urban sprawl. The increase in degradation can be directly linked to the increased water demand, water nutrient loading and increased impervious surface, which are a few among many other factors that are issues associated with the growing urban development. The way in which we develop land in and around natural ecosystems should be one of our main focuses. With this in mind, it is evident that are without a doubt the environment’s number one predator.

In the early 1800’s, the southern tip of Florida was a marshy wetland from the Orange County to the Florida Bay. This was an area covering nearly 8.9 million acres. Within this area, Everglades National Park, dedicated in 1947, is a 1.5 million acre park established by President Truman. This area was recognized as one of the most important natural environments supporting life in southern Florida. Some current examples of the natural resources dependent on the Everglades are as follows; 500,000 acres of freshwater marsh and sawgrass, 230,000 acres of mangrove forest, over 400 species of birds, 25 species of mammals, 60 species of amphibians and reptiles and 14 endangered species.
Just before the conception of the park, many governmental projects were taken on to control drainage of the area, which in turn left a great deal of environmental damage. At the head of this ecosystem is the Kissimmee River basin and Lake Okeechobee. This is the main supply of water for the national park area and is very unique in the fact that the lake is nearly 730 square miles but averages only a mere 12 feet in depth. This in turn makes the fluctuation of water level, extremely detrimental to the natural system. When water levels naturally change, they slowly pass over the south side of Lake Okeechobee and flow through the Everglades. But over the past century, the diversion of fresh water intended for flood control has left this area with unnatural variations in water level. Historically, constant water movement through the park in the wet season and receding water levels in the dry season allowed for the development of the slough and mangrove estuaries, but with the man made impositions on the land, much of this has become unstable. Due to the interweaving nature of the environment, this instability doesn’t only affect the aquatic life, but affects everything in the ecosystem.
The current Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) is to redirect into the Everglades the unused fresh water that goes directly to the ocean. The intent is that the controlled increase in freshwater to the declining ecosystem of the Everglades will provide better clean and reliable water along with increased flood protection, among other ecological benefits. This project is headed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in partnership with the South Florida Water Management District, along with many other organizations that are actively addressing the problem.

Beyond the scope of scientific and engineering solutions, the best approach may be to address issues of urban development. It is interesting to take into account that one thing the Everglades and humans have in common is water, and that both need it to maintain itself. As recently as the 1940s, the Everglades were a vibrant and healthy ecosystem. But at that time, when development came and the area was manipulated to supply water to the people, the Everglades began to decline.
The connection between residential and commercial is very strong. Centralization of residential tends to occur around areas of work and commerce. And southern Florida is no different. However, concluded from research of Robert E. Lang, southern Florida may be the most decentralized areas in the country. For example, in the Miami Central Business District (CBD), only 13 percent of all office space is found here as compared to the national median which is more than double that at 30 percent. Along with this, from 1997 to 2002, Miami’s CBD only grew 4.7 percent while areas outside of the CBD or the non-CBD grew at a rate of 60.3 percent.
With this trend in development, southern Florida counties such as Broward and Palm Beach have developed portions of their western sides, which begin to encroach on the Everglades. This sprawl however, has been halted due to the federally mandated Urban Growth Boundary (UGB), a line that has been developed to prevent any more greenfield development near the Everglades. To help oversee this, the South Florida Regional Planning Council has coordinated a master plan to encourage growth to the east and help redevelop the costal cities’ many brownfield sites. This plan has been given the name “Easterward Ho!”
What does this mean for the future? With southern Florida’s already populous 5.5 million people, and the expectations of growth to hit 7.5 million by 2020, environmentally focused groups want to see this population growth revitalize the already developed downtown rather than spreading any further west than the I-95 corridor past the UGB, where most of the open land exists. But this increase in population still doesn’t lessen its dependency on the water supply of the Everglades. The increase in population yields in an increase in water demand by 200,000 gallons per day from an already declining ecosystem.
Poorly planned population increase has very devastating effects on the environment. For example, when population growth increases, so does the demand for roads and parking areas. This land coverage of impervious surface puts an added stress on the water supply by preventing water filtration into the aquifers. Having more people also means a higher demand for agricultural production, which adds nutrients of many forms to the ground water supply. Fertilizers, pesticides and animal droppings are three major components which contribute greatly to the nutrient loading. As a final example, transportation problems arise in urban areas without well planned centralized development. When the suburbs have a wide spread footprint with decentralized commercial and industrial areas, the benefits of mass transit become very ineffective. This in turn, drives governing bodies to set up guide lines that facilitate more parking for businesses, effectively increasing surface runoff. It also creates the obvious increase in private automobile transportation that increases emissions and nonrenewable resource consumption. All of these examples show a very close relationship to one another, representing how interwoven man is with nature.
In the forefront of Florida’s urban development plans must be the environmental issues associated with the Everglades. The “Eastward Ho” corridor along the eastern portion of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties is making a very proactive attempt to try to tackle the current environmental issues that if left alone would continue on a downward spiral possibly destroying the Everglades and leaving Florida without a freshwater supply.
It is important to remember that boundaries on a map cannot delineate natural habitats. National parks are not isolated, but are in fact a part of a much larger network, one which acts and reacts with many other outside forces. In southern Florida, the Everglades National Park is an example of this phenomenon in which boundaries do not create an island oasis. The park is in fact merely a product of everything that happens in the surrounding environment. As the population grows, there are only two outcomes that are drawing near. We either develop responsibly leaving little or no impact on the natural environment or we can continue to abuse it until there is nothing left. In Florida’s case, until the Everglades no longer see effects of human involvement, they must continually strive to address the environmental issues at hand.

Works Cited

10: New Neighborhoods can Combat Urban Sprawl.
http://www.businessweek.com/1999/99_35/b3644017.htm (May 2006)

Beyond Edge City: Office Sprawl in South Florida.
http://www.brookings.edu/es/urban/publications/langmiami.htm (May 2006)

Brody, S. D. “Does planning work?”
Journal of the American Planning Association 71 (2005) : 159-175.

eflorida.com: Florida’s Business Advantages, Special Opportunities, Brownfields.
http://www.eflorida.com/businessadvantages/1/default.asp?level1=1&level2=10&level3=71 (May 2006)

Everglades – Everglades/Florida Bay Watershed Management
http://www.sfwmd.gov/org/wrp/wrp_evg/2_wrp_evg_glades/2_wrp_evg_glades.html (May 2006)

Holcombe, Randall G. “Urban Sprawl: pro and con.”
Perc Reports 17 (1999) : 3-12.

Miami Group of the Sierra Club: Conservation Archive.
http://florida.sierraclub.org/miami/cons_sprawl.htm (May 2006)

Miami Sprawl Decision Moves to Tallahassee.
http://ga1.org/natureadvocate/alert-description.tcl?alert_id=2116471 (May 2006)

Page 8 – South Florida Gets Smart About Growth.
http://www.nbm.org/blueprints/95s/summer99/page8/page8.htm (May 2006)

SOFIA – Evolution of Everglades Tree Islands – Abstract
http://sofia.usgs.gov/projects/tree_islands/devnstability_03geerab.html (May 2006)

Terrain.org – A Look East: The Urban Face of Everglades Restoration.
http://www.terrain.org/articles/3/starrett.htm (May 2006)

Urbanfutures.org Abstract: Florida’s Growth Management Experiment.
http://www.urbanfutures.org/abstract.cfm?id=17 (May 2006)

Weisskoff, R. “Missing pieces in ecosystem restoration.”
Economic Systems Research 12 (2000) : 271-303.

Welcome to Everglades National Park.
http://www.nps.gov/ever/welcome2.htm (May 2006)

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