The Everglades National Park
FIU IDH 4007

Falling Down

Melissa Petersen
IDH 4007
Spring Semester 2004

   Over the past eight months that I have been studying in the Everglades I have participated in a wide variety of activities. I have canoed through the Nine Mile Pond and Florida Bay; done a slough slog into a cypress dome; walked the Gumbo Limbo and Anhinga trails (among others); picnicked in a slash pine forest and biked through Shark Valley. And that is to name but a few of our class' activities. Each of the activities has broadened my knowledge and understanding of this diverse landscape. I have had the opportunity to look at the Everglades from a variety of different perspectives and this past week was no exception.

   But before I get to this past weeks adventure, I want to tell you about one from a few months ago; a canoe trip. Well, actually two canoe trips. I have done one in Nine Mile Pond and one in Florida Bay and the most poignant recollection I have of both of these trips (beside the aching of my very out of shape muscles) is that of the clear water. Not to sound like an ad for bottled water but, the water was so clear we could see straight through to the bottom. When we were in Nine Mile Pond the periphyton were as visible as though they were inches from our faces. The water was a far cry from the vision of swampy, murky, pestilent water which was espoused by Governor Bonaparte Broward in the early 1900's. Mind you, it is an impression of the Everglades that still persists today.

   In Florida Bay, the water quality was no different. Although many of the areas we canoed through were deeper than Nine Mile Pond and we could not see the Bay floor, the shallower areas were just as clear and beautiful, offering us views of countless little fish. Even now the image I see when I think of that Bay is the broad expanse of clear blue/green water. What I encountered this past week was completely different from these canoe trips.

   This week I participated in an Everglades clean-up. Like a chain-gang my classmates, professors and I walked the edges of roads and canals (which are popular fishing spots) picking up trash. Nasty, stinky, disgusting crap including fishing line, prophylactics, feminine napkins, beer bottles (lots of beer bottles), paper plates, styrofoam cups, plastic bags and even a toilet. I bring up the toilet because from what I saw this week it is hard to shake the impression that the fishermen who frequent the areas we worked on this week probably treat their toilets better than their favorite fishing holes. I doubt they would throw half the stuff we found in the water and on the banks of the water into their toilets for fear of plugging up their plumbing and septic tanks. Never mind the fact that the waters which they are throwing trash into are part of the bigger South Florida plumbing system.

   The water I saw this week was just about the antithesis of the water in Nine Mile Pond and Florida Bay. It was murky and polluted and gross. I can tell you that for a fact because I happened to have accidentally taken a nose dive into it. Now this is not the first time I have entered into the waters of the Florida Everglades. I have been on a slough slog into a cypress dome and have jumped off an airboat to wade though the muck before. And like on the canoe trips, the water surrounding me was clean. Sure there was peat and marl above the limestone floor but the water was still clean and clear. I never felt as though I was in someone's trash can on these occasions. The same can not be said for the water I fell into this week. Never before have I ached for a shower in my life!

   The water I fell into was disgusting. In fact that was the reason why I was there. When I fell in I was straddling a small bridge and using a pole to fish out garbage from the water. Don't ask me how, but I lost my balance and fell over the bridge hitting a drain pipe on the way down. Needless to say when all was said and done I was totally embarrassed and filthy; having swum through a lot of trash to get out of the water. In addition to that I was a bit banged up and bruised from the fall. As I lay in bed all weekend it dawned on me that in the context of where I fell, my aches and pains were very insignificant. The quality of the water I fell into is not.

   The Ranger who oversaw our clean-up project bluntly told us that the Park is unable to monitor these areas and keep them clean. They simply do not have the man power to clean-up after the fishermen nor to even keep trash receptacles in these areas because they have no one to empty them. I believe he said that there is only one Maintenance Man for the entire Eastern Everglades. They have to rely upon volunteer groups such as ours to clean these areas because apparently the fishermen can not be counted on to pick up their own refuse.

   Not only is this fragile eco-system being polluted by agricultural run-off and constantly infringed upon by urban sprawl, but it is also being dumped in by fishermen and God only knows who else. Is there any end to the degradation of the Everglades? I am sure that I can say that I am not the only one in my class who fell in love with this place during the Fall Semester (just as I was supposed to) and I am probably not the only one who has found this current semester to be thoroughly depressing. Why? Well, because the situation seems so bleak and the politics so backward. It is shameful that the future of an entire eco-system is subject to the political whims of whoever holds the political office of Governor.

   I do not mean to blame everything on the Governor because he is but one of the players in this game. As we learned from the South Florida Water Management District (another of the major players) there are many other outside influences that affect the life of the Everglades including the SFWMD, The Department of Environmental Protection, the Miccosukee Tribe, the Army Corps of Engineers (yes they are still playing a part), Congress, the Florida Legislature, the Sugar Industry, and let's not forget the taxpayers.

   Sounds complicated, doesn't it? Well it is, and it is overwhelming. It is hard to tell where to begin or what to do to make the situation in the Everglades better. CERP certainly isn't the answer; at least I don't think so. There are positive things in that plan, but it assumes that the agricultural run off (phosphorous) problem has already been alleviated and it also proposes a system of ASR wells to provide water for an urban sprawl of 15 million people. Never mind the fact that much like the canals in the 1800's, the environmental impact of the ASR wells is all but unknown!

   What are you going to do? Well, despite a little tumble over a bridge, I would say that one of the best things any individual can do is get in their car and drive to the Everglades with a garbage bag and a pair of work gloves. We can not individually change the entire political climate and bureaucracy surrounding the Everglades or satisfy the interests of all of the party's involved in the future of the Everglades. Likewise, we can't always canoe in Florida Bay. Sometimes, to make a difference, you have to swim through the murky, polluted waters full of garbage.

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