Phy·to·ge·og·ra·phy: the branch of botany that deals with the geographical distribution of plants.
It started with a request, an idea, and over many months materialized with the guidance of Tia Barnett, Governing Board and Executive Services, and Dr. Ken Chen, Supervisor, Geospatial Mapping Services Unit, Information Technology Bureau, SFMWD.
The request: “Could we create an educational map blending pre-drainage natural features such as water flow, plants, and forests with the modern sixteen county map we use for today’s SFWMD’s “Facilities and Infrastructure”?
Dr. Chen excitedly assigned two young modern-day cartographers/geographers to the task: Ms. Lexie Hoffart and Ms. Nicole Miller.
Their research began with an overlay of the famous 1913 Phytogeographic Mapof the Original Florida Everglades by John Harshberger. Then they “moved north” to research the Kissimmee River and Lake Okeechobee using the 1882 Communications Steamboat Map by W.G. Williamson and Q.A. Gilmore of the USACE.
Modern publications were studied as well: a 2017 article by Michael A. Volk, UF, entitled “Florida Land Use and Land Cover Changes in the Past 100 Years:” alsoLandscapes and Hydrology of the Predrainage Everglades, 2011 by Christopher W. McVoy. All this and more was taken into account as an overlay on a modern SFWMD map of present-day facilities and infrastructure including modern estimates of populations.
Wow! What does the old adage say? “The only constant is change!” May understanding the past help us to be better stewards of the future…
The outcome, a document rich in revelation past and present. Thank you, Lexie and Nichole!
The mythical pond apple forest….Imagine, for a mile or two back from the water’s edge the trees grew, and like God’s magic sieve, their colossal roots strained the water of Lake Okeechobee before it inched its way south through the river of grass to the Everglades. Over thousands of years, the lake’s muck built up inside, around, and under, their gigantic roots, a forest grew, until one day the farmer came, the engineer came, the “white man” came, and took it all.
“We are chosen!” they said. “We are chosen to have dominion over the earth! Strip it! Cut it! Burn it! Tear it out! Expose the muck, the precious muck, and let us build an empire. Let us lift ourselves from poverty, feed ourselves, and become rich!”
And many of today’s generations have become rich from this soil.
The story of the explosion of agriculture, and the sugar industry below the great lake known as “big waters,” or “Okeechobee,” as the Seminole people called it, is a not a tale for the weak. It is the story of the nature of man, and his destruction of the environment of which he is part. It is the story of “success,” and the difficult journey of a culture to define what “success” really means.
Lawrence E. Will, in his book, “Swamp to Sugar Bowl,” writes in his cracker style in 1968:
“That part of the woods along the south shore and half way up the eastern side, was a dense forest of tropical custard apple trees. For a mile to two miles back from the water’s edge they grew, and on all the islands as well. About 33,000 acres of solid custard apple tress there were, and that’s a heap of woods.”
33,000 acres of custard apple trees destroyed. Gone. Forever.
Today, the Everglades Agricultural Area is 700,000 square miles south of the lake. It produces sugar and vegetables. The growth of the area is the reason why the overflow waters of Lake Okeechobee are directed thorough the northern estuaries killing local economies, rivers, and wildlife. Thus the story of the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon.
Once during a conversation with Mr Tom MacVicar, a respected engineer who works with the agricultural and sugar industry, I was told that Lake Okeechobee used to be about “30% bigger.” At the time, I wondered what he was talking about, but over the years through reading and study I have come to understand.
Let me explain. In the late 1800s when the early farmers planted their crops they would do so in winter when Lake Okeechobee’s waters had “receded back” as it was the “dry season.” This would be after the back-breaking work in some areas of tearing out the pond apple trees in order to get to the rich muck, “black gold,” that lies underneath. Over the years the edge of the southern shore of the lake was pushed back and then the “smaller” lake was entirely diked. This is one reason why the lake can’t hold its historical water level. Through Florida and Congress, the history of the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corp of Engineers is linked to this history of pushing back the lake and building the agricultural empire, although now their mission includes environmental restoration.
I think it would be fitting to replant some pond apple trees each year until one day, perhaps, we can regain part of the soul of that lake that was ripped out at the roots.
The first time I ever saw Lake Okeechobee, I was fourteen years old. I was visiting River Ranch, at Yeehaw Junction, with my friend Vicki Whipkey, and her family. Jay Brock, who was by far the smartest of any of us kids there that summer vacation, and my first real “crush,” recommended we go see sunset on the lake. I don’t remember how we got there, but we did.
Once we arrived, the sun was starting to fall. The horizon was miles away, and the water went as far as the eye could see in all directions.
“It looks like the ocean, not a lake.” I said, taken aback.
Jay, spouted off some statistics saying something like: “The lake is about 730 square miles; 35 miles long; and up to 25 miles wide. It is the largest lake entirely within a state in the United States of America; it is half the size of Rhode Island.”
I wondered how he know all this stuff, and we sat there watching the sunset.
I wondered if I would have my first kiss at this beautiful, but almost eerie, “ocean of a lake.” It never happened…
I never really forgot Jay Brock, and we remained friends throughout our lives.
I never, never, ever, forgot Lake Okeechobee.
Years later, an adult, I started going back to Lake Okeechobee in my forties when I started to become concerned about the releases from the lake into the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon. I wanted and needed to see it through “adult eyes.”
—-I have flown over the lake with my husband and his friends many times; I have entered the lake by boat; and I have driven 30 miles west with my niece Evie, on Highway 76, until arriving at Port Mayaca. No matter how I have gotten there, every time I see the lake, I have the same experience I had at fourteen years old, I am completely “overcome by its size.”
Yesterday, Governor Rick Scott pledged Amendment 1 monies to the Everglades, but not for buying the US Sugar option 1 lands south of Lake Okeechobee,
I am thankful for this, but disappointed; I am thankful Governor Scott has the Everglades and local projects in his budget recommendation for the 2015 Legislative Session. Nonetheless, I recognize that our St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon problems will never be fixed until there is land and eventually a reservoir south of the lake to store, clean, and convey water south— a flow way of sorts to move that water south….
THERE IS TOO MUCH WATER. SOME MUST GO SOUTH. WE NEED A COMBINATION AND THE OPTION 1 LANDS EXPIRE THIS OCTOBER, 2015.
Let’s think a minute. Let’s review, and contemplate about what we can still do to politely convince our governor and legislature. There is still time.
Florida Oceanographic Society quotes 1.5 or so million acres feet coming out the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee in 2013, (not our worst of years), with approximately 300,000 acre feet being released to the St Lucie/IRL and 660,000 acre feet being releases to the Caloosahatchee. The rest going to sustain the Everglades Agriculture Area south of the lake, and a smaller portion yet trickling to the dying Everglades.
So even if the Kissimmee holds more water, it won’t hold enough water. The water is meant to go south….
I wonder if the governor or Adam Putnam have any grandchildren who might be able to explain this? 🙂
Remember that the Governor’s recommendation is just that. It must be approved by the legislature. We still have time to make our voices heard and to ask for one thing to be added. ——one thing that would really help hold the tremendous and over-pouring waters of Lake Okeechobee, —-a lands purchase and a reservoir south of the lake. Then the senate, the house and the governor can duke it out….it’s not over yet!
What did Winston Churchill say? “Never, never, never, —-never give up!” 🙂