Gators and a Lot of Guff

Gators and a Lot of Guff

Cox book review in The Wall Street Journal
March 14, 2006

Few experiences inspire awe like paddling a canoe through a Florida swamp filled with otters, turtles and tropical birds. Or spending the night on high ground surrounded by the subsonic thrumming of gators, harmonics dueling around you like a gigantic Aboriginal didgeridoo.

As the resident of an island surrounded by Florida swampland, I understand the moral sentiment behind Michael Grunwald's "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise." There is indeed such a thing as a swampy paradise. But I wouldn't go as far as Mr. Grunwald. His message, to quote one of his milder passages: "The Everglades is a test....If we pass it, we may get to keep the planet."

It is true that the disappearance of the Everglades, the wide, slow marsh river flowing seasonally from Lake Okeechobee (in the center of the state) south to Florida Bay, would be a great tragedy, but the "river of grass" isn't going to disappear, and it is decidedly not a test. It is too clearly sui generis to portend the fate of the planet. Nor can it exist in isolation from, you know, human beings.

For "pure" environmentalists, with whom Mr. Grunwald feels much sympathy, restoring the Everglades means re-establishing natural, rainy-season flooding from the Kissimmee River basin north of Lake Okeechobee to the southern end of the peninsula. Unfortunately, an Everglades that now stretches across four million acres and accommodates seven million people at its edges can never be "natural" in the sense that an unmanaged, self-sustaining ecosystem is natural. Nor should it be, at this point.

It is true that the original Everglades would be largely intact today if not for big, tax-subsidized drainage efforts. But those efforts began decades ago and cannot now be undone. And Florida would cease to exist if they were. Judged by wateriness alone, the state is closer to the Netherlands than Nebraska. Only a vast system of canals, pumphouses and banked-up rivers and lakes -- many begun under the New Deal and intensely elaborated in the early 1960s -- makes Florida habitable and farmable.

And makes cities possible. Without water management, there would be no Naples, Orlando, Miami and Fort Lauderdale -- no retirement and no spring break. The pure environmentalists are horrified by all this nonwatery activity. They haven't proposed a massive resident relocation yet, but it is implied by their Druidic vision of pristine nature. The population of the Orlando area has increased by millions since the early 1960s, when the nearby Kissimmee River was "channelized" to contain floods. Even more millions now live in the areas protected by the Okeechobee flood-control system to the south. Where are these people supposed to go if Florida is run by Gaia and not the state government's water authority?

Conservationists would prefer to "restore" the Everglades by first preserving what is still natural there -- by adjusting hundreds of small inefficiencies in damming and eco-management, even erecting new dikes for the sake of the Everglades themselves. Pure environmentalists, by contrast, want to expand the idea of restoration to "take back," at enormous cost, some of the most valuable real estate in the country.

A $9 billion Everglades restoration project, approved by Congress in 2000, has taken its cue from the pure environmentalists, dismantling various flood controls and de-channelizing various rivers. Mr. Grunwald doesn't like the project only because it does not go far enough. He would like statewide "sheet flow," letting water go where it will. That would include the front porch and cropland of many a contented Floridian.

A key problem for the restorers is that the environmental data they use to guide them come from 1960 and after. As it happens, the early 1960s ended a long (40-year) cycle of high-intensity, and frequent, hurricanes. The 40 years that followed -- true to pattern -- were less wet and windy. But we are now re-entering a peak-hurricane cycle, as Wilma declared last year and climatologists confirm. A lot of cheerful suggestions about dismantling flood controls are based on the wrong part of the sine curve.

Thus environmentalists are pushing to prevent the lowering of water levels in Lake Okeechobee in preparation for storms, because fresh-water releases from the second largest lake in America disrupt the ecosystem of the brackish Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. Similarly, they attack the use of herbicides needed to keep canals clear of the weeds that clog pumps. But such resistance courts disaster. Dan Canfield, an aquatic ecologist at the University of Florida, warns that a "perfect storm" or even a series of smaller hurricanes could do as much damage to Orlando or south Florida as Katrina did to New Orleans.

Rather than accepting a compromise between humans and habitat, Mr. Grunwald radicalizes the process with coal-mine-canary metaphors. He cites the efflorescence of red-tide algal blooms, which are "massacring" Florida's "dolphins, oysters and manatees" by poisoning them. Yes, the algae are poisonous, but there are simply no data to show that they are more populous now because of manmade "runoff." They were spotted by the Spanish in colonial America and remarked upon by the scientist-explorer Angelo Heilprin in 1886, before a few thousand residents could affect Florida's waters. They are part of the state's natural ecosystem.

Similarly, Mr. Grunwald worries over phosphorus levels in the water, but he doesn't need to. Phosphorus is mined in Florida. The soil is full of it. Nature is responsible for most of the mineral's presence, runoff less so. In any case, Mr. Grunwald uses a pollution standard that has long been discredited: a phosphorus-to-water ratio of 10 parts per billion. Even the Clinton administration cast the standard aside. (A bottle of Evian water has 200 parts per billion.) Important scientists, too -- e.g., Prof. Curtis Richardson of the Duke University Wetland Center -- reject the ratio as evidence of pollution.

The Everglades debate, including such exaggerations, is reminiscent of the one that distorted forest management a decade ago. The fervor of environmental purists -- almost religious in its intensity -- has the effect of discrediting practical policies and leading to foolish ones. We had unnecessarily destructive forest fires a few years ago, until sanity returned to policy. Perhaps destructive floods will do the same in Florida. At some point, people must be seen as part of the nature we are trying to preserve.