Technology: Dredging and Drainage
Florida was not always as hospitable to human beings as it is today. Much of the land Floridians live on was at one point under miles and miles of water and swamp land. Since the early 1900s, Florida has endured many dredging and drainage projects to create better accessibility throughout the state for trade and transportation, and to create more land for residential and commercial purposes. However, history has shown that there are several negative environmental impacts of such projects. The initial draining and dredging of the Everglades and the Cross-Florida Barge Canal project offer valuable insight into the history and effects of dredging in Florida.
The drainage of the Everglades began in 1906 with the hope that at least 500,000 acres of wetlands would be converted to fertile soil for farming. The drainage was begun without any formal study of the landscape and without any consideration given to the environmental effects it would have. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, the governor of Florida at the time, didn’t foresee any complications with the draining of the Everglades. His plan involved simply using gravity combined with the natural elevation and slope of the landscape between Lake Okeechobee and the coast to achieve drainage.
Many investors were reluctant to buy reclaimed land until some sort of scientific report was conducted to vouch for the potential success and cost-effectiveness of the project. This led to the writing of several scientific reports on the feasibility of the current everglades drainage plan. However, many of these scientific studies, such as the Wright Report, suffered from a mingling of science and politics which led to questionable if not falsified data. One report, commissioned by the Everglades Land Sales Company in 1912, offered a more realistic view. It attested that, “The state’s canal system could not drain the entire region, and further, went on to question the economic desirability of such widespread reclamation” (Arsenault, Davis 148). The report also predicted many other faults with the canal system of the time. It determined that, "drainage from the upper everglades threatened the previously high and dry land of the Miami Rocklands of the Atlantic Coastal ridge with flooding, and they also knew that dried organic soils would easily catch fire, destroying the very fertile soil reclamation promised to create” (Arsenault, Davis 148). The report also mentioned that the newly exposed soil had the potential to subside due to compaction and biochemical action of aerobic bacteria.
When the results of this report were released, state officials decided to commission their own report. The results of this report, titled the Randolph Report, were more along the lines of land developer’s hopes. The report found fault with parts of the current drainage plan, but still saw the project as possible and cost-effective provided changes were made. The Randolph Report served as the basis for Everglades’ drainage from 1913 to 1928. However, as predicted by the report commissioned by the Everglades Land Sales Company, as successful drainage was accomplished, more soil subsidence occurred and fires burned the newly dried land. The elevation drops along Lake Okeechobee became so severe that dikes had to be made to keep water from flowing over onto farmer’s fields. In 1926, Florida’s hurricane season brought storms that caused heavy rain, failure of the dikes and severe flooding. That year, more than 600 people died as a result of the flooding. In 1928, hurricanes caused the failure of the dikes once more. This time more than 2,000 people lost their lives. Another unforeseen result of the plan was that for Miami residents, “removing surface water meant that their underground freshwater supply became the victim of saltwater intrusion, as ocean water filled the void left by too little surface water percolating into the Biscayne Aquifer” (Arsenault, Davis 152). Since then, numerous iterations and policies regarding the everglades drainage and reclamation project have been proposed, and numerous other concerns have arisen. Perhaps the most pressing concern is finding a way to provide for the increasing fresh-water needs of the growing population of South Florida while conserving as much of Florida wildlife as possible.
The Cross-Florida Barge Canal project was another dredging project that illustrates the pros and cons of dredging and land forming in Florida. The idea of the cross-Florida barge canal had its origins in the mid 1500s when Pedro Menendez de Aviles of Spain searched for a natural waterway across Florida that would allow easy passage through the state for military and commercial purposes. However, It was not until the 1930s that technology and the correct political circumstances aligned to make the cross-Florida canal a realistic venture. The U.S. was experiencing the full force of the great depression, and this provided the catalyst for the ground breaking of the cross-Florida canal: “The Florida legislature in May 1933 passed a joint resolution calling FDR to approve the canal project, and at the top of the list of benefits was that the canal ‘will give employment to a vast amount of human labor, thus greatly relieving the distress due to the unemployment crisis’” (Arsenault, Davis 381). “The canal was to span the state with a route going from the mouth of the St. Johns, down the Ocklawaha, skirt just past Ocala, and meet up with the Withlacoochee River, before emptying at Yankeetown in the Gulf” (Arsenault, Davis 382). Despite heavy opposition and concern that the digging of the canal would damage the Floridian Aquifer, where most of the state obtains their water, FDR authorized the spending of $5 million for the project and broke ground for the canal on September 19, 1935.
However, when FDR turned control of WPA funding over to congress in December of 1935, the canal had seen the last of its funding and progress until it returned 30 years later. By this time, Florida’s population had doubled since 1950, making it a pivotal state to win in a presidential election. As a result, John F. Kennedy supported the Cross-Florida Canal Project to bolster his support in Florida during the 1960 election. Once in office the president kept his campaign promise and successfully sought approval of funds for the project in the House of Representatives. Thus, in February of 1964, Lyndon Baines Johnson made the second and final ground breaking of the canal.
Despite the canal’s second wind the project was to be short lived. In 1969, opponents of the canal formed the Florida Defenders of the Environment which published a collection of scientific data titled the “Environmental Impact of the Cross-Florida Barge Canal”. In this report the FDE argued that the canal would fracture the limestone and allow pollution of the Florida’s aquifer, and that further work on the canal would devastate the local plant and animal life. They also argued that parts of the existing canal were outdated and were too shallow to support many barges. As a result, President Richard Nixon halted the construction of the canal in January of 1971 by presidential executive order.