Florida's Natural Filter: Everglades National Park

Aug 24, 2016

Inside of The Everglades National Park  - deep into the Gumbo Limbo Trail - the namesake trees are jokingly referred to as "tourist trees" because the Gumbo Limbo is red and has peeling bark, like a sunburn. 

It's a hot August day - 91 degrees - and the humidity is palpable. More than one million people visit the Everglades every year, but silence is still a distinctive feature of this 1.5 million acres of protected wetlands. 

What else stands out along the hiking destination? The water here.

A small bug’s wings ripple the still water.
Credit Caitie Switalski / WLRN

Quietly, water throughout the national park here filters its way from Lake Okeechobee down to Florida Bay through nutrient-rich soil and becomes some of the most pure that nature can make.

Cara Capp, the Everglades restoration program manager at the National Parks Conservation Association, said even the mineral water you buy at the grocery store would contaminate with phosphorus if it were to get in contact with the water here.

“If you poured out a bottle of bottled drinking water, it would be a violation,” Capp said. “It’s nature’s perfect filtration system.”

A close up of the seagrass just under the surface of the clear water along the beginning of the Anhinga Trail.
Credit Caitie Switalski / WLRN

The Biscayne Aquifer, which provides municipal drinking water for many Floridians, sits directly underneath the Everglades. So whether you know it or not, Capp said, you likely consume Everglades water every single time you turn on your tap.

“Two-thirds of Floridians get their drinking water from areas of the Everglades,” she said.

Over the last 100 years, urban development and sea level rise have changed this park’s natural filtration system. Now, there’s less of this very pure water than there used to be...as much as 50 percent less, according to the Everglades Foundation.

There’s also saltwater intrusion in the Biscayne Aquifer now because of sea-level rise. That’s where restoring the Everglades’ natural flow can be a solution, Capp said.

 “As we’re restoring the Everglades and stacking more fresh water on the land, it pushes back against that salt water intrusion,” she said.

It's nature's perfect filtration system.

Restoring the more natural flow of fresh water in the Everglades system will ultimately cut down on costs to desalinate drinking water, according to Everglades Foundation information.

The Everglades National Park was officially created in 1947 and it is the largest protected wilderness east of the Mississippi. Long before that, specifically since 1916, it was the Royal Palm State Park. But there was little or no control of the water entering from the agricultural areas north of the park. 

Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg  said that the restoration efforts got a major victory back in the 1980's from a lawsuit over polluted water entering the Everglades, long before the year 2000 when the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was passed in Congress.

Another historic moment for supporting the Everglades, Eikenberg said, was the 2014 passage of Florida Amendment One, which provides more money for Everglades restoration. 

The algae here, unlike the algae blooms from Lake Okeechobee, are natural and non-toxic.
Credit Caitie Switalski / WLRN

Eikenberg said everyday people should be more invested in seeing the protected wetlands restored, "If they don't want to lose the quality of life here in Florida." He went on to say that this restoration plan has an overall goal:

"To fix the sins of previous generations," he said. 

Credit Everglades Foundation

The actual restoration in that process comes from moving more water in Lake Okeechobee from its current flow out through estuaries east and west- to go south towards Florida Bay like it historically used to, before urban development. 

Eikenberg said the damage started back in 1906 with plans to drain the wetlands in order to build on Florida land. 

"Ultimately Everglades is storage," he said. "It's the lifeblood of South Florida and the South Florida economy."

Making the flow of water more natural means removing man-made dams and levees under Lake Okeechobee as well as focusing on keeping water inside the peninsula. Projects like bridging Tamiami Trail and building a reservoir to purify water from the lake help to do that, according to the Everglades Foundation. 

So after it's 100th birthday, what's next for the Everglades?

The Central Everglades Planning Project, to approve directing more water south, is expected to be voted on by Congress after the August recess is over. 

Overlooking the end of Florida, into the much saltier Florida Bay.
Credit Caitie Switalski / WLRN