Understanding South Florida’s Canal Systems, Storing/Sending More Water South to Save the Indian River Lagoon

Understanding sending water south requires understanding  the canal structures north and south of Lake Okeechobee and how they can be altered. ACOE map, April 18th, 2014.
Understanding sending water south and storing north requires familiarity with the canal structures and pump systems  north and south of Lake Okeechobee. ACOE, April 18th, 2014.

I have been getting a lot of calls asking me to explain how South Florida’s canal systems work; how more water will be stored north of Lake Okeechobee and more sent south to the Everglades in light of everything that is recently in the newspapers.  So in this short space, I will attempt to give just an overview of South Florida’s canal and drainage system. Mind you, you may come up with some of your own ideas to add to what is already being proposed…

As an aside, I must note that the main way the “powers that be” keep the public from changing “things” is that they don’t talk a lot about “how things work.” So it is our job to be proactive and figure this our by ourselves. There are many resources at our disposal should we seek, and if we help each other interpret the data.

EVERGLADES RESTORATION: (http://www.evergladesplan.org/about/landing_about.aspx)


ACOE J-V: (http://www.saj.usace.army.mil)

First of all, the natural water system of Florida has been completely altered since the early 1900s and even more so since World War II.  Look below at the pink line surrounding the lake; this is the approximate boundary of the original greater everglades drainage basin. Look at all of the houses built inside the pink line from Palm Beach County south. Next, look at the yellow line inside of the pink line, on the right side; this is the East Coast Protective Levee, a giant concrete permeable slab along with pumps, that keeps the natural ground water from “seeping permanently” into the area built inside the drainage basin. 


Now we will look north of Lake Okeechobee to see the Kissimmee River, that has was channelized, or made straight,  in the 60s and 70s that dumps tons of water into Lake Okeechobee, that in turn is diverted to our estuaries. The great river once had a wide, winding, drainage basin that held water, but it was straightened so now it all pours quickly into the lake full of agricultural and urban filth. An approximate 20 mile long section is  now slowly being restored as best possible, in light of ranching and regaining right of ways. We must encourage them to restore it all in time.

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Now let’s take a good look south of the lake. One can see that the entire area is now the EAA, or Everglades Agricultural Area. This area has very productive land, as it, like the Nile River in Egypt, naturally floods and overflow its banks, enriching the surrounding areas with layers of rich soil. But rather than just grow crops when the river receded, we diked the lake permanently and now grow crops year-round south of the lake, not allowing the waters to flow south if the lake starts to overflow.

Agriculture is the monetary and cultural heritage of Florida but it is interesting to note that today agriculture is the second biggest industry in Florida after tourism. With the estuaries areas growing population, today, there is substantial tourism money connected to the estuaries; there was not in the 1900 through the 1970s. But the canal system is still set up for the agriculture industry to thrive as it has since about World War II and we do need  agriculture. Here in lies the tension.

Also, of course,  the water being diverted into the estuaries protects people south of the lake inside that pink area from being flooded as well. So figuring “this one”out is very tricky business. Nonetheless, we must create a flow way south as hopefully CEPP will start to do.

CEPP Central Everglades Planning Project: (http://www.evergladesplan.org/pm/projects/proj_51_cepp.aspx)

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What a change to Mother Nature. Is this now a permanent system or could it be altered to accommodate changes in values and concerns for today? Like all things, in order to survive, it must adapt.

So slowly a flow way south of the lake must be the goal; the Kissimmee River must be fully restored so its flood plain can hold and filter more water; the St Lucie River and Caloosahatchee Rivers must be restored.

I think we have all noticed that, the River Movement is finally catching traction, and we must  not let up. We are excited for our seeming progress but remember, “smoke and mirrors” will appear. But this is no magic trick to be amazed by, this is real.

We are making progress. Let’s keep educating ourselves, and continue fighting and inspiring our government and our children to keep working to store more water through the restoration of the Kissimmee and send more water south. Let’s learn about South Florida’s canal and drainage system and think of ways to adapt it for a better future.

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*Most of these maps can be purchased through the South Florida Water Management District or at Val Martin’s bookstore in Hobe Sound, Florida Classics Library: (http://www.floridaclassicslibrary.com)

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