St Lucie River’s Demise/How Did We Get Here?

Town of Sewall's Point, Martin County Florida, 9-13 surrounded by polluted waters released from Lake Okeechobee
Town of Sewall’s Point, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon, Martin County Florida, 9-13, surrounded by polluted waters released from Lake Okeechobee

You may wonder, “how we got here,”to this polluted Lake Okeechobee sewer running  through the  St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon and the Calooshahatchee?

In order to do so, we must go way back.

In 1845, Florida became a state, and even before this time, there had been discussion about “draining the Everglades and reclaiming the swamp lands for productive use.”

Florida was poor and the legislature wanted to build its coffers, so when the “Swamp Land Act of 1850” transferred twenty million acres from the federal government to the state of Florida, of course the state legislature had dollar signs in their eyes.

From 1851 to 1885 the Internal Improvement Fund, overseen by the Florida Governor and his cabinet, sold swamp lands, and others, to the railroad companies ; with the money the state made, it built canals and drained more lands,  an endless and helpful cycle for  building the state’s immature economy.

By 1864, at the end of the Civil War, Florida was broke and it wasn’t until 1881 when Hamilton Disston entered the picture that draining the land started again. Disston paid for the land and started draining it by running a canal through the Caloosahatchee River on the west coast to Lake Okeechobee in the interior as well as parts of the Kissimmee River. The lake dropped substantially; Florida would never be the same. Disston ended up committing suicide due to the Panic of 1893, but he inspired generations of drainers to come.

As early as the mid 1800s, the legislature had discussed draining Lake Okeechobee through the Caloosahatchee and the St Lucie rivers . By 1923, this had been accomplished, on a shallow level, creating a water way across the state through Lake Okeechobee. At the same time, agriculture south of the lake excelled in the the rich soils that had been reclaimed from the great swamp. The state was happy and “feeling rich.” However, within only a few years, the country had fallen into the “Great Depression” and Mother Nature brought Florida to its knees.

The hurricanes of 1926 and 1928, together, killed thousands of  agriculture workers when the water of Lake Okeechobee went  south, as nature intended.  The outcry from the local and state governments of Florida made it  to Washington DC, and the true dependency on the the Army Corp of Engineers began.

By 1938 the Herbert Hoover Dike had been built around the once magnificent lake until another hurricane, in 1947, flooded the agriculture south of the lake again.

As it had done after 1928, the Army Corp dug the canals of St Lucie and the Calooshahatchee  deeper and wider. Eventually, the Central and South Florida Flood Control Project was formed by the state and federal government for seventeen counties; its headquarters was placed in West Palm Beach, today the headquarters of the South Florida Water Management District -which the flood agency eventually morphed into.

More canals and pump stations were constructed and by the 1960s most of what was eventually called the Everglades Agriculture Area, 700,000 acres south of the lake,  would grow primarily sugar. These sugar families became very powerful and influential in government  and remain so today.

It wasn’t until the 1970s, under Governor Rubin Askew, that the environment and natural resources became “important,”  as the conservation movement of the time demanded such.

The South Florida Water Management District now received  an expanded mission that went beyond flood control and water supply for agriculture and other users;  this mission now included  an “ecological mission.”

To this day, the environment is certainly last in the mission of Florida’s government and today’s sick and polluted waters of the St Lucie, Indian River Lagoon, and the Caloosahatchee attest to this.

For 168 years the state of Florida has protected agriculture above all others. In light of the state’s history and prior poverty, this makes sense. Nonetheless, a lot has changed in 168 years. We’ve had a civil war, slavery has been outlawed, women can vote, children are no longer used as common labor, and we have an African America president.  Don’t you think it’s time to change how we drain and destroy our rivers?

I do.

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