Tag Archives: swamp land act

Are Lake Okeechobee’s Drained Lands Really Ours to Navigate? SLR/IRL

Lake O has been drained and lowered so that it is 250 square miles smaller than it was in the mid 1800s.
Lake O has been drained and lowered so that it is approximately 250 square miles smaller than it was in the mid 1800s. (SFWMD) Florida became a state in 1845.

“Navigable waters of the state” are protected under Florida law. They cannot be sold–they cannot be owned. They belong to the public…

Although the Swamp Lands Act of the 1850s allowed for drainage of Florida’s swamp lands, in some instances the drainage and claims may have been overdone. In accordance with state law “you can’t convey what you do not own.” This is part of what is known as “The Public Trust Doctrine.”

Hmmm? In all the excitement to develop, did the state break its own rules in conveying lands south and around the lake? Certainly powerful entities own those lands today.

—–That would be a bite wouldn’t it?

Let’s look a bit closer….

It is common knowledge that Lake Okeechobee has lost a tremendous amount of its former self, and that large portions of the lake have been drained and diked for agriculture and development.

Just recently while attending a  University of Florida Natural Resources Leadership Institute presentation in Clewiston, Jeff Summers of the South Florida Water Management District gave a Power-Point presentation using the slide below. It shows the natural vs. altered conditions of the lake going from approximately 1000 sq miles in the 1850s  to 750 square miles today. –Thus the approximate water stage has gone from 20 feet to 14 feet. Definitely a loss of navigable waters–don’t you think? Today those lands around the lake are used for growing mostly sugarcane. Today most of those lands are “owned.” How could this be as they were once under water enough to be “navigable waters of the state?”

Slide from Jeff Summer's power point presentation SFWMD, 2016.
Slide from Jeff Summer’s power point presentation SFWMD, 2016.

The excerpt below is straight out of the “Florida Bar Journal” as shared by my brother Todd. After reading the paragraph, click on the link below to read the entire article. It is certainly worth thinking about…The maps below show land ownership.

Florida Bar Journal’s article conclusion:

The Public Trust Doctrine imposes a legal duty on the state to preserve and control title and use of all lands beneath navigable water bodies, including the shore or space between ordinary high and ordinary low water, for public use and enjoyment. The people of this state have raised the protection afforded by the doctrine to constitutional stature. In the most recent challenge to this doctrine, the Florida Supreme Court relied upon this constitutional provision in reconfirming longstanding Florida law that swamp deeds do not create a private property interest in sovereignty lands. Attempts to use swamp deeds as a justification to legislatively redefine the ordinary high water boundary and thus transfer all or part of the shore to the adjacent private owner are similarly inappropriate and unconstitutional.

Full article Florida Bar Journal, April 2001: http://www.floridabar.org/DIVCOM/JN/JNJournal01.nsf/Articles/8D98D298C0060C0785256B110050FFB7

Map of land ownership TCRPC 2016
Map of land ownership south and around Lake O TCRPC 2016. Key below.
Key to above map, 2016 TCRPC.
The bigger picture. Lake O used to flow to the Everglades. Google Earth map 2016.
The bigger picture: Lake O used to flow to the Everglades but is now directed to the northern estuaries St Lucie/IRL and Caloosahatchee causing great destruction.  Google Earth, 2016.


Navigable Waters of the State: http://www.floridageomatics.com/publications/legal/submerged1.htm

How Times Change, The 1850’s Swampland Act, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

1907 map in A.B. Clark’s “Drain the Everglades.”

In my readings, I come across quite a few interesting old maps.

The one above, is most unusual because it is labeled “Jensen” rather than “Stuart” as to where the canal draining Lake Okeechobee was to go in the early 1900s.

I found the map from a write-up that is part of the “Digital History Project.” This piece was originally published by A. B Clark in 1907. Here is the link for the full write-up in case you are interested: (http://www.digitalhistoryproject.com/2011/08/draining-florida-everglades-lake.html)

When reading such work form the late 1800s and early 1900s, it mind-boggling to think of how our perceptions have changed and how we as a society are constantly dealing with the decisions of our ancestors, who helped get us here, albeit today, possibly considered “politically incorrect.”

Take for instance the Swamp Land Act of 1885.

Let’s read about its encyclopedic history:

“The Swamp Land Act of 1850 was US federal law and essentially provided a mechanism for transferring title to federally owned swampland to private parties agreeing to drain the land and turn it to productive, presumably agricultural, use. This gave broke states like Florida an opportunity to make money and for people to buy very cheap land and make it “productive…”

This law was primarily aimed at the development of Florida’s Everglades, and transferring some 20 million acres (31,000 sq mi) of land in the Everglades to the State of Florida for this purpose.

The law also had application outside Florida, and spurred drainage and development in many areas of the United States, including areas around Indiana’s Kankakee River, Michigan’s Lake St. Clair’s shores, and elsewhere, and encouraged settlement by immigrants arriving in the United States.

Much later the law was considered to have been ecologically problematic.  Many of its provisions were in time reversed by the wetland protection acts in 1972 and later legislation, but its historical effects on U.S. development and settlement patterns remain.”

I was born in 1964, so wet land protection is ingrained in me. Nonetheless my great grandparents were taught to think of wetlands or swamps as useless….

When reading through the piece by A.B Clark, he lists the counties as Lee, Desoto, Dade and St Lucie as the primary ones to be drained. One must note of course that the county lines were different then. For instance my parents live in Indialucie in Sewall’s Point and my mother created a sign and nailed it to a cabbage palm. The sign reads: “Brevard-Dade”
“St. Lucie-Palm Beach.” The sign represents the county line between the counties. St. Lucie was created in 1905 and Palm Beach in 1909.

We have gotten quite a kick out showing guests this sign over the years!

Old stuff is cool.

Here are some old public Florida county line maps. They are fascinating to look at too. The lines have gone back and forth and changed over the years.

Wonder what they will read in the future with rising seas, higher populations, and wetlands now known for their importance to water supply and water quality?

Florida 1850
Florida marked as 1883
Florida 1850
Florida marked as 1850

They say “the only constant is change.” How true this is….


Swampland Act, Wikipedia: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swamp_Land_Act_of_1850) 

UF IFAS Florida’s wetland protection history: (http://soils.ifas.ufl.edu/wetlandextension/protect/legislation.htm)