Brief History of the Everglades

America’s Everglades once covered almost 11,000 square miles of south Florida. Just a century ago, water flowed down the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee, then south through the Everglades marsh to the flats of Florida Bay – the ultimate destination of the pure sheet flow.

Dubbed the River of Grass for the sawgrass that flourished throughout the marsh, the Everglades is a mosaic of freshwater ponds, prairies and forested uplands that supports a rich plant and wildlife community. The river spans as much as 60 miles in width, yet is only six inches deep in some places.

Known throughout the world for its abundant bird life, the Everglades is home to several species of large wading birds such as the roseate spoonbill, the wood stork, the great blue heron and a variety of egrets.

The mix of salt and freshwater makes it the only place on Earth where alligators and crocodiles exist side by side.

In 1905, former Florida Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward began a concerted effort to drain the Everglades to make the land suitable for agriculture and development. Large tracts of swamp were transformed into productive farmland, and cities such as Miami and Fort Lauderdale began sprouting up along the coast.

As the population grew, so did the need to provide flood control to the new residents of South Florida. In 1948, the U.S. Congress authorized the Central and South Florida Project Exit DEP Disclaimer, which created the most effective water management system in the world. Today, the project's extensive network of man-made canals, levees and water control structures channel 1.7 billion gallons of water daily from the Everglades out into the ocean.

The loss of water changed the natural characteristics of the marsh. As the water receded, so did the natural habitat of wading birds, fish and dozens of animals. Saltwater flowed farther into the marsh from the ocean, and pollution flowed in from neighboring farms and cities. Changes in water quality stifled the growth of native plants, allowed exotic plants to take root and fueled the growth of algae which worsened the loss of natural habitat. As a result of this cycle continuing for the last half of the 1900, the Everglades today is half the size it was a century ago.

Despite the damage that was done more than 50 years ago, the Everglades is still considered a national treasure just as extraordinary as the Grand Canyon, the Great Lakes or the Redwood Forests. A remarkable coalition of highly diverse and bipartisan interests has joined forces to make the restoration possible.

To revive and protect this national treasure, Florida is undertaking the largest environmental ecosystem restoration in the world. It is Florida’s top priority to improve the quality of life for all south Floridians, provide adequate water supply for south Florida’s growing population and provide improved flood control, all while preserving America’s Everglades and Florida’s Liquid Heart – Lake Okeechobee - and protecting natural wildlife and plants for future generations.

  • Read an extended timeline of the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee Restoration.
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Last reviewed: February 11, 2009