Skip to content

About PERC

All Areas of Focus

All Research

Who Drained the Everglades?

  • Clay Landry

    President George W. Bush and Florida governor Jeb Bush recently signed an agreement affirming that an $8 billion, 30-year federal plan to repair the Everglades will at least partially restore the natural flow of water through the wetlands. But environmentalists should not rest easy. The job of restoration is being handed over to the entity that was most responsible for the problem in the first place: the federal government, and, in particular, the Army Corps of Engineers.

    The Everglades today receives less than one-third of its historic water flow, the water is contaminated by fertilizer and other runoff, and the wildlife-rich wetlands are half the size they were when the federal government started its draining projects in the 1920s. The story of the Everglades epitomizes government programs gone awry. It also shows that the private sector, however ambitious, is restricted in the environmental harms it can cause. The need to cover costs reduces the potential for massive mistakes. Even state governments are limited in the harm they can cause. But the federal government is able to override common sense and cause environmental havoc.

    Early Florida settlers wanted to drain the Everglades, a swampland covering about 4,000 square miles in south Florida. The goal was to create farmland by digging canals that would draw off the swamp water and allow it to flow to the ocean. Most people thought that draining the Everglades would be as simple as pulling the plug in a bathtub (Blake 1980, 4). But the undertaking proved too costly, even with early help from the state and federal governments.

    Governmental help started with the federal Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act of 1850, which gave the state title to all “swamped and submerged land” that it could reclaim (Carter 1974, 58, 60). The Florida legislature quickly began encouraging settlement of an area near Lake Okeechobee, most of which was part of the Everglades. It formed the Internal Improvement Fund (IIF), a state agency that used public money to entice private developers to drain land.

    The IIF had a sordid history, peppered with accusations of corruption and underhanded dealings, excessive construction costs, and poor investments. Even though a wealthy industrialist from Philadelphia saved it from bankruptcy at the end of the nineteenth century by purchasing 4 million acres of submerged land, extensive development proved virtually impossible. By 1920 fewer than 900,000 acres had been successfully drained. Florida’s reclamation efforts were paralyzed by financial failure.

    Unable to collect drainage taxes, borrow more money, or meet bond payments, the state turned to federal aid, specifically to aid from the Army Corps of Engineers, the only federal agency equipped to undertake such a grandiose task as draining the Everglades. One of the first projects undertaken by the corps was a flood control project on Lake Okeechobee, largely in response to the flooding and tragic deaths caused by hurricanes in 1926 and 1928. Many people blamed the catastrophic flooding on poorly designed and unfinished drainage projects left by early developers. To alleviate future flooding, the corps constructed the Herbert Hoover Dike, which was eighty-five miles long and at least three times the size of the old state-built mud levee. In total, the project cost just over $19 million, about twice the original estimate. Florida was initially required to kick in $2 million for the flood control project, but Congress reduced the state’s obligation to $500,000 when it was unable to raise the money (McCally 1999, 140).

    The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 gave President Franklin Roosevelt the authority to spend an unprecedented $3.3 billion on construction projects (Blake 1980, 147), and the Florida delegation quickly launched a campaign to fund the Cross-Florida Canal project. Building a canal across Florida had been a pet pork barrel scheme since Congress first allotted money for it in 1826 (Blake 1980, 151). President Nixon finally killed the project in 1969.

    By 1950, the federal assault on the Everglades was in full operation. In 1947, one of the worst storms on record had flooded nearly 2.5 million acres (General Accounting Office [GAO] 1999, 3), and in 1948 Congress approved a bill for $208 million to provide flood control for 700,000 acres (Kriz 1994, 590). The money initiated the Central and South Florida Flood Control Project, a system of more than 1,700 miles of canals and levees and sixteen major pumping stations (GAO 1999, 4). This project drains lands south of Lake Okeechobee that is now farmed primarily by sugar growers. Completed in 1979, the project arrived ten years past its deadline and nearly $100 million over budget (Snell and Boggess 1994, 21).

    And it left environmental problems in its wake by severely disrupting the flow of water in the Everglades. Signs of environmental trouble became visible in the summer of 1966, when heavy rains forced extensive pumping of excess water from farmlands. The water was deposited on land that was reserved for wildlife and home to much of south Florida’s deer population. Hundreds of deer drowned and smaller animals like wild hogs and raccoons died because high water covered their food supply.

    Today, levees and drainage canals continue to block the flow of water through the Everglades, including Everglades National Park. During years of adequate rainfall the park has enough water, but in dry years, water is held in drainage canals and diverted from the park. The park is last in line in the 250-mile system and thus at the mercy of other uses, from flood control for agricultural lands to municipal water demands.

    In some years too much water is a problem for the Everglades. After large rainstorms, water control districts relieve flooded farmlands by releasing large volumes of fresh water in brackish estuaries adjacent to the park. The excess water disrupts the delicate mix of brackish water needed to produce shrimp and fish, a food source for many coastal birds. When these aquatic creatures are not abundant, coastal birds will desert their nests and nestlings in search of new food supplies, farther away.

    Water drainage and control, paid for largely with federal funds, opened the door for commercial sugar production in the Everglades. No single policy affected the development of the Everglades more than the sugar embargo on Cuba. In 1960 fewer than 50,000 acres of sugarcane were planted in all of Florida; but domestic sugarcane growth exploded from 1961 as Cuban sugar was entirely eliminated from the U.S. market. During the embargo Florida’s sugar acreage production increased nearly fourfold, from 50,000 acres in 1959 to more than 200,000 acres five years later.

    Furthermore, federal price supports ensured that more land would be drained and planted in sugarcane. Domestic sugar prices are supported by the federal government through a complex arrangement of loans and import restrictions. These programs have effectively kept domestic prices well above the world price.

    By keeping sugar prices high, federal policies encourage farmers to achieve high yields through extensive use of fertilizers and chemicals. The buildup of fertilizer is particularly harmful. Phosphorus, a chemical not abundantly found in the region’s natural water supply, is leaching into groundwater that is then pumped to Everglades National Park and Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge.

    Studies estimate that nearly 80 percent of phosphorus used in fertilizing crops reaches the Everglades (Coale, Izuno, and Bottcher 1994). Nonnative plants that thrive on the phosphorus (such as cattails) are crowding out naturally occurring species (such as sawgrass). Bird populations are only 10 percent of what they were at the turn of the century (Tolman 1995, 3, 6-7), primarily because of habitat loss to sugarcane production and reductions in food sources due to polluted runoff.

    Sugar policies remain in force despite a coalition of environmental and fiscally conservative taxpayer groups opposing them. Rather than change these policies, Congress is taking a familiar tack-more pork barrel. To rectify years of federal abuse, Congress has authorized the Army Corps to begin what has been touted as the largest environmental restoration effort undertaken in the history of the United States. The basic idea of the plan is to capture fresh water that has been flowing to the ocean, store it in new reservoirs, and then release some of it to mimic the natural flow of the Everglades. The remaining water will be diverted to meet the needs of sugar plantations and thirsty cities throughout southern Florida.

    While public rhetoric highlights the restoration phase of the project, critics such as Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council charge that, like so many corps projects, the water supply features of the plan dominate restoration efforts. It was to allay these fears that the president and the Florida governor agreed to give a high priority to restoring natural flows. Time will tell whether the result will be mostly restoration or mostly pork.

    Blake, Nelson Manfred. 1980. Land into Water-Water into Land: A History of Water Management in Florida. Tallahassee: University Presses of Florida.
    Carter, Luther J. 1974. The Florida Experience: Land and Water Policy in a Growth State. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
    Coale, F. J., F. T. Izuno, and A. B. Bottcher. 1994. Phosphorus in Drainage Water from Sugarcane in the Everglades Agricultural Area as Affected by Drainage Rate. Journal of Environmental Quality (January-February): 121-26.
    General Accounting Office. 1993. Sugar Program: Changing Domestic and International Conditions Require Program Changes. GAO/RCED-93-84. Washington, DC, April.
    —. 1999. South Florida Ecosystem Restoration: An Overall Strategic Plan and a Decision Making Process Are Needed to Keep the Effort on Track. GAO/RCED-99-121. Washington, DC, April.
    Kriz, M. 1994. Mending the Marsh. National Journal, March 12. McCally, David. 1999. The Everglades: An Environmental History. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.
    Snell, Rand, and Bill Boggess. 1994. Everglades Case Study: Water Agriculture, and Environmental Policy Issues. Background paper prepared for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. Oregon State University, Corvallis.
    Stevens, William K. 1999. Some Scientists Attack Plan to Restore Everglades. New York Times, February 22.
    Tolman, Jonathan. 1995. Federal Agricultural Policy: A Harvest of Environmental Abuse. Washington, DC: Competitive Enterprise Institute.

    Clay J. Landry is a PERC Research Associate. This article is based on “Unplugging the Everglades,” a chapter in Government vs. Environment, edited by Donald R. Leal and Roger E. Meiners, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield (

    Written By
    Related Content