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From Natural Flow to Managed Systems

Take a look at the maps above.

Side-by-side, these renderings of the historic and altered flow of water through the Greater Everglades ecosystem illustrate the fundamental reason we face so many water challenges today.

On the left, historic sheet flow envelops the southern half of Florida, from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. No man-made connections from Lake O to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. There was no Everglades Agricultural Area, now dominated by hundreds of thousands of acres of sugarcane. And the historic system was devoid of development — of throngs of people who have made a home out of a once-wild landscape.

On the right, an altered Everglades remains today. Where water once flowed slowly, freely and at will from one end of the system to the other, now canals, levees and other water management structures govern the movement, velocity and timing of each drop. Unnatural connections from the east coast to the west coast were carved into the landscape a century ago, forcing water into ecosystems that never needed additional inputs. Industrial sugarcane south of Lake O became an immovable bottleneck — staunching the flow of clean water necessary for the survival of the southern Everglades in order to sate sugar’s own irrigation and drainage needs.

More than 22 million people now call Florida home, and the natural system has changed in irreversible ways. But the future of Florida is not lost. It depends on the survival of the remnant Everglades and restoration of wide swaths of wetlands — not just to safeguard wildlife habitat, but also to protect Florida’s drinking water, reduce flood risk and safeguard all of us in the face of climate change. Friends of the Everglades continues to advocate for nature-based restoration efforts to reverse the damage caused by human activities and restore the only Everglades in the world to a more natural state.

You can find interactive versions of these maps on our website under the Everglades Learning tab. Click the boxes in the legends on the right to explore environments, park boundaries, tribal lands and other identifying features in both the historic and altered renderings. We created these maps to serve as a useful tool for those of you who wish to learn more about this special ecosystem and the quest to protect it.