Two centuries ago the Miccosukee Indians fled from settlers into the Florida Everglades, where they survived off the natural ecosystem with an abundance of wildlife found nowhere else.
Today, the Everglades serves as the main water supply for one in every three Floridians and is also a busy tourist destination.
But as urban developments and farms continue to spread across the state, the River of Grass is shrinking despite billions of dollars spent on restoration efforts.
”It’s hard to live off the land like my grandparents used to,” said Houston Cypress, a Miccosukee descendant. His family used to live on tree islands. But changes in the land and water are “impeding open access to our sacred sites and making it difficult for us to maintain our traditions out here.”
Cypress blames the polluted water that is running down from sugar and agriculture farms further north, making its way into the Everglades and right onto tribal land.
“We have a big problem here in the Miccosukee community with a canal that’s just near Alligator Alley. It’s called L-28…and it’s bringing a lot of phosphorus.”
The state of Florida has been draining the Everglades since Florida became a state to make way for urban development and farms. Soil in the Everglades doesn’t naturally support crops, so farms add fertilizer rich in phosphorus. It is an essential mineral, but in excess can do more harm than good to the natural environment.
Thousands of cattails began to appear and phosphorus was the culprit, according to Lawrence Gerry with the South Florida Water Management District. The cattails smother smaller native plants that wildlife rely on as a food sources, water movement is slowed and areas where water is supposed to flow freely are being choked.
Though its improved farming practices, the sugar industry reduced phosphorus by 63 percent in its latest monitoring period, according to water management officials.
Fusion sent several requests for comment from sugar companies, including Florida Crystals and Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. The largest sugar cane producer in the country, U.S. Sugar Coporation, told us it “has been a partner in Everglades restoration for nearly two decades, and we prove our commitment on the farm every day, cleaning water before it leaves our farms. In addition, we proudly support the state and federal restoration projects that will further protect our natural resources for future generations.”
Thousands of water samples are tested at the South Florida Water Management District.
“If we are going to be discharging water in the Everglades, then we want to make sure that the water is good enough,” said David Struve with the SFWMD.
“I don’t think there’s a doubt that we’re seeing some improvements in water quality, but there’s still a long way to go.”
“We are by far the leader in the world for ecosystem restoration. All eyes are on us,” said Julie-Hill Gabriel, director of Everglades Policy with Audubon Florida. “As we start to complete projects and show progress, we are really showing the world that it can be done. It’s a challenge. We are trying to engineer nature and we constantly are running into new challenges that we hadn’t thought of before.”
For Houston Cypress, the progress is not fast enough.
“For me this is home. This is my sacred place. I’m really scared that over time, it’s gonna disappear.”
Credit: Angela Barajas, Suzette Laboy and Walter J Collins.