MAXWELL:  Cattails endanger the River of Grass

2/9/2000- Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the Earth, remote, never wholly known. Nothing anywhere else is like them . . .


The Everglades, as Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote and spoke of them, are dying much faster than the general public and most politicians think.

Cattails, tall marsh plants with reedlike leaves, are the culprit.

According to figures in the Miami Herald, cattails have devoured 61,053 acres of the Everglades, or 14.5 percent of the area state researchers have mapped in the swamp. Cattails have become super plants in the River of Grass because they are fed by phosphorous, a nutrient that farmers use to produce crops and that homeowners and businesses use for green lawns.

Environmentalists and researchers are asking some scary questions: Has the continued trade-off of super crops and manicured turf over the environment doomed the Everglades? Can we save them? How can we stop pumping phosphorous into the region?

At ground zero, in the national park itself, cattails are smothering sawgrass and other flora that normally thrive and nurture animal life. Unfortunately, Florida International University ecologist Joel Trexler told the Herald, reversing decades of damage may be next to impossible. Even the smallest traces of phosphorous can accelerate the growth of cattails, seriously mutating soil and plants.

“In the Everglades, it’s easy to get too much of a good thing,” Trexler said.

When cattails proliferate, they form a thick cover on the water that keeps out sunlight and robs the water of oxygen that aquatic plants and animals require. The result? Too much bacteria and “everything crashes,” Trexler said.

In a paper on the impact of phosphorous and cattails in the Everglades, Trexler said phosphorous that is not captured by cattails saturates the soil. The soil stores the nutrient and releases it during dry times after lightning-induced fires burn muck, producing yet more cattails stands.

“Over time, it is almost certain that any area of the Everglades will experience a “natural’ disturbance (such as a drought and fire) that will clear out (sawgrass and other vegetation) and permit a race by plants for dominance,” Trexler said in the Herald. “Cattails will out-compete the typical low-phosphorous plants if the soil has accumulated enough phosphorous prior to the disturbance.”

Officials with the South Florida Water Management District told the Herald that, since the 1970s, phosphorous buildups have tripled in some parts of the Everglades. The good news is that the sugar-cane industry, one of the region’s worst polluters, reduced its total phosphorous discharges by 49 percent last year alone.

By all measures, this is a remarkable achievement. Other polluters _ cattle producers near Lake Okeechobee and housing developments _ need to follow Big Sugar’s lead and triple efforts to clean up their acts. The last chapter of Douglas’ book The Everglades: River of Grass is titled “The Eleventh Hour.”

Indeed, the clock is ticking down for one of America’s unique natural treasures. The campaign to rescue the Everglades from cattails and other threats will demand shared investments of time, hard work, creativity, sacrifice and money.