It’s hard to believe, now that it’s been overrun by 7 million residents and 7 jillion strip malls, but southern Florida was once America’s last frontier. As late as 1880, the census recorded just 257 residents in a county covering most of the region — because most of the region was a watery wilderness called the Everglades. Mapmakers weren’t sure whether to draw it as land or water. Politicians dismissed it as uninhabitable swampland. Explorers described it as a “godforsaken” and “hideous” and “abominable” morass, “suitable only for the haunt of noxious vermin, or the resort of pestilential reptiles.”

When good wetlands go bad.

Photo: usgs.gov

Those explorers never would have imagined that the Everglades would get so dry that it would burn out of control, or that desolate southern Florida would become a sprawling megalopolis. But those two weird developments are intimately related. The wildfires raging through nearly 40,000 acres of the Everglades this week are the direct legacy of the elaborate water-management system that made southern Florida safe for human civilization. The system has functioned according to design for decades, but it’s killing the Everglades, and it’s ultimately unsustainable for human South Florida as well.

Environmentalists like to say that the Everglades is a test; if we pass, we may get to keep the planet. I wrote a book about the death and possible rebirth of the Everglades that was basically dedicated to the proposition that southern Florida is where we’re going to find out whether humans can live in harmony with nature, and perhaps avoid the water wars that could otherwise dominate the geopolitics of the 21st century. The fires are a vivid, symbolic reminder that we’ve got a long way to go. History’s bill is coming due for a century of bad decisions, and we haven’t yet figured out how to pay it.

When It Drains, It Pours

For all its famous sunshine, southern Florida has always been one of the rainiest swaths of North America; with 60 annual inches, it’s significantly wetter than Seattle. And for thousands of years, most of that water ended up in Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, a panoramic sheet of shallow water flowing through 100 miles of serrated sawgrass from the lake all the way down to Florida Bay. In fact, the fires that are now raging in the northeast corner of Everglades National Park are incinerating one of the wettest sloughs of the original “river of grass.” Another fire ravaging 25,000 acres around Lake Okeechobee is actually burning drought-exposed lakebed.

The scientific term for this phenomenon is FUBAR. Sloughs and lakes are not supposed to be flammable. Sure, there were fires in the natural Everglades, but they were caused by lightning strikes during summer rains, and were quickly extinguished by the waterlogged landscape. The Everglades is incredibly flat, declining just a few inches per mile, so its original wetlands were incredibly wet, storing rainfall and recharging underground aquifers in the summer so that there was still water on the ground when the rains stopped in the winter. If you were a glutton for punishment, you could have walked across the entire marsh without getting your hair wet, and without stepping on dry ground.

But starting in the 1880s, Americans determined to subdue Mother Nature started trying to drain the Everglades with canals, hoping to create a new paradise for agriculture and development. A few lonely voices warned that ditches could turn the swamp into a desert, but most Floridians agreed with Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, who declared in the early 1900s that if drained swamps could really burn, “the great bogs of Ireland would have been ash heaps long before St. Patrick drove out the snakes.”

But sure enough, the early ditches started sucking the marsh dry, ruining wells, damaging soils, and, yes, igniting fires so smoky that children in Miami had to cover their faces at school. And in the summer, southern Florida’s torrential downpours overwhelmed the ditches, converting farmland back to swampland, inspiring the first jokes about buying Florida land by the gallon. The jokes seemed a lot less funny in 1928, when a hurricane blasted Lake Okeechobee through a flimsy muck dike, killing 2,500 pioneers in the Everglades.

Enter my friends in the Army Corps of Engineers, the ground troops in America’s war against nature. They built the massive Hoover Dike around the lake, forever cutting off the Everglades from its wellspring. Then they built America’s most ambitious flood-control system, with more than 2,000 miles of levees and canals, plus pumps so powerful the engines were cannibalized from nuclear submarines. The project gave water managers power to move almost every drop of rain that fell south of Orlando, allowing them to whisk floodwaters into the lake, the Everglades, or its estuaries for the convenience of thirsty farms and communities that only wanted water when they wanted it.

These waterworks made southern Florida safe for 400,000 acres of sugar fields, as well as one of the spectacular development booms in human history. On the southeast coast, suburbs like Coral Springs, Miami Springs, Sunrise, Miramar, Weston, and Wellington began sprouting west of I-95, paving over the eastern Everglades. And on the southwest coast, Naples and Fort Myers started marching east into the western Everglades.

Unfortunately, most of that boom took place back when wetlands — which absorb stormwater, cleanse drinking water, and nourish wildlife — were still considered wastelands. The result is a dying ecological treasure, but also a megalopolis that still seesaws between dangerous floods in the wet season and harsh droughts in the dry season.

Today, half the original Everglades has been lost, along with its ability to smooth out high-water and low-water events. The other half is a mess — usually too dry, occasionally too wet, always polluted and discombobulated. The ecosystem hosts 69 endangered species, including the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, which exists only in Everglades National Park, and could use some flame-retardant pajamas this week. Water is supposed to be the lifeblood of the Everglades, but these days it barely reaches the park.

With Trends Like This, Who Needs Enemies

Meanwhile, since the leaky Hoover Dike is at risk of a catastrophic failure, and water managers don’t want a repeat of the 1928 disaster, they often blast billions of gallons out of the lake when it gets high, ravaging the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries to its east and west, wasting fresh water they need in times of drought. For example, they dumped tons of water into the sea to prepare for the 2006 hurricane season — just in time for a two-year drought that has left Lake Okeechobee three feet below its normal level.

That’s how southern Florida got into its current predicament. Raindrops that used to fall on wetlands, recharge aquifers, and dribble across the landscape all year long now land on yards, roads, and parking lots, migrate into canals, and get whisked out to sea. And now the exurbs have moved to the doorstep of the Everglades, where they constantly stick new straws into the aquifers. So now the Everglades is parched enough to burn out of control when some yahoo gets careless with matches. And millions of people in the surrounding suburbs suddenly have to worry about smoke and particulates as well as unbearable traffic, overcrowded schools, skyrocketing insurance rates tied to the omnipresent threat of a hurricane, and a disappearing sense of place.

The good news is that in 2000, Congress decided to fix all these problems, enacting the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan to restore some semblance of southern Florida’s natural hydrology. It’s a complex project, but the basic idea is to spend $12 billion on reservoirs and high-tech wells that will store rain that used to be stored by wetlands, then redistribute it to people, farms, and the Everglades when it’s needed.

The project passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in both Washington, D.C. and Tallahassee, because everyone agreed that the Everglades was a national treasure. It’s supposed to be a model for ecosystem restoration work in the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, and even southern Iraq’s Garden of Eden marshes.

The bad news is that the project is deeply flawed, particularly when it comes to getting water to the Everglades. And now it’s stalled by money problems, engineering problems, and political problems. The Everglades is as sick in 2008 as it was in 2000.

Eventually, it will stop burning. But it will still be dying.