Magazine Post: Sawgrass to Seagrass

Sawgrass to Seagrass

The fight to maintain a delicate balance

Once considered a mosquito-infested swamp, the Everglades has finally achieved the gold medal recognition it deserves. Approximately 4 million acres of diverse wetlands, rivers, lakes, prairies and forests are not only home to thousands of vital species, but they also provide fresh, clean drinking water for 9 million people in Florida every single day.

The wetlands improve water quality by filtering out pollutants and absorbing excess nutrients, replenishing aquifers and reducing flooding. This critically important ecosystem is unlike any other in the world and is home to countless plant and animal species, many of which are threatened or endangered. Sadly, even with this precious gem in the backyards of so many Floridians, many of them are not aware of its importance.

Too much water awater can have a devastating impact on the Everglades and its wildlife.

Much More Than a Swamp 

The Everglades was once believed to be a worthless swamp. In 1881, a Pennsylvania land developer named Hamilton Disston purchased most of the Everglades with the goal of creating a network of drainage canals to drain the swamp, but he was unsuccessful. In 1904, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward (for whom the county is named) promised to drain the Everglades during his campaign for governor. His efforts were more successful than Disston’s.

Following two back-to-back major floods in 1947 and 1948, our forefathers drew a line in 1949. They said inside this line will be persevered forever and outside will be drained for agricultural use, flood control, safety and welfare to the general public. The system that once flowed freely from the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee through the river of grass and into Florida Bay was compartmentalized, and its natural sheet flow was cut off with levees, dikes, canals and pump stations. This compartmentalized system would pump water from the developed areas onto the area of the Everglades that was intended to be saved, doubling the amount of water with half the area to store it. This created a huge problem for the ecosystem. A wetland is extremely sensitive to water levels. Too much water or too little water can have devastating impacts. It is crucial to understand that a natural wetland has a shallow depth of water, compatible with the ecology, environment and wildlife. 

Now, after more than 30 years of relentless efforts by conservationists to restore the Everglades, the tides have finally turned in their favor. The plans are complex and expensive, but the bottom line is to correct the past, decompartmentalize and re-establish the natural sheet flow of water with the proper quantity and quality compatible with the natural system. This will benefit the Everglades, but the hope is that it also will eliminate the blue-green algae that has plagued coastal communities and created a balance in Florida Bay that has killed off sea grasses due to high salinity from lack of freshwater and other factors.

It is extremely important to realize this journey of water from north to south is what replenishes the aquifer that provides drinking water for the 9 million people that live in South Florida.

No Everglades = no water. 

The good news is that there is hope. Hope for an Everglades resurgence. Hope for cleaner water. Hope for native species to thrive. And hope for successful conservation from the Sawgrass of the Everglades to the Seagrass of the ocean.

The Alligator Man

“The Everglades is one of the most unique places on this earth. It is up to us to be good stewards.”  Ron Bergeron

If you don’t know Alligator Ron, let me introduce you to this fascinating man. He is a proud Gladesman who spends most of his time deep in the swamps. He got his name “Alligator Ron” after he lost a finger wrestling an alligator. He’s devoted most of his life to saving the Everglades. 

A natural ranch deep within the Everglades is where he calls home. Alligator Ron’s family has been in Florida for eight generations; they have lived and breathed within the elements of the Everglades since the 1800s. He grew up in Davie when it had a population of just 500 folks, and his parents owned and ran a small grocery store. 

“There were more places to tie your horse than park a car in front of my dad’s store,” Ron said. “My parents demanded respect, discipline, responsibility and kindness from me.”

At the age of 18, he left home; he mowed pastures, baled hay and harvested fruit. He never turned down a job and worked many 18-hour days, sometimes sleeping under his tractor. By the age of 25, Ron had become a very successful businessman and entrepreneur, yet he lived in a house trailer until he was 40. 

In addition to his entrepreneurial efforts, which have now grown into overseeing more than 60 companies, Ron’s dedication to the land and its creatures never wavered. His love of the Florida wildlife and understanding of their needs to be protected motivates him to budget time and money to Everglades conservation. He currently serves as a governing board member of The South Florida Water Management District, appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, as well as the Everglades Task Force, which oversees Everglades Restoration. He also served two terms and was appointed by two governors as a commissioner for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. He also was the point commissioner over the entire Florida Everglades.

Sawgrass to Seagrass Education

Over the years, Ron has also become good friends with Dr. Guy Harvey. They joke that if Harvey will wrestle an alligator, Bergeron will scuba dive with sharks. So far, neither has happened. However, both men understand the intricate link between the land and the water and conservation of each.

“The Everglades is one of the most unique places on this earth. It is up to us to be good stewards. It is impossible to save the estuaries of the Gulf and the Atlantic without the proper quantity, quality, timing and distribution of freshwater, the journey of water from the Everglades to the ocean,” Bergeron said. “That’s why we call it Sawgrass to Seagrass. It’s all connected.” 

Water is the key focus on the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, but that extends to the boundaries such as mangroves and seagrasses. 

“The marshes and mangroves act as nurseries for many of the gamefish species we love to catch,” Harvey said. “Just snorkel around the roots of mangroves, and you’ll see juvenile snook, crabs, turtles — basically the building blocks of the saltwater food chain.”

This like-mindedness has led to an ambitious K–12 education curriculum that is free to students — not just in Florida but also anywhere on the planet. The courses, focused on middle and high school students are jam-packed with education on the history of the Everglades, hydrology, wildlife, flora, fauna … the entire gamut that is the Everglades. This information is delivered using dynamic videos, vivid photos and hands-on activities that can be used in the classroom.

“We need to be able to educate the next generation about the connection between the land and the sea … Those kids who are in elementary school now will be scientists and engineers bringing the Everglades back to life 10, 25 or 50 years from now.”

Ron Bergeron

“We’re finally on the path to restore the Everglades, and that’s fantastic. Yet, we’re facing a long road ahead. This is not a process that will happen overnight. Those kids who are in elementary school now will be scientists and engineers bringing the Everglades back to life 10, 25 or 50 years from now.”

During the past two years, the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation has launched a full suite of educational content on the oceans. So it’s fitting that Bergeron and Harvey teamed up to create the Sawgrass to Seagrass curriculum, which teaches students about the interconnectedness of the Everglades and oceans.

In addition to the curriculum, which is available online and in classrooms, a primary goal is to engage the teachers themselves on an upfront and personal level. It’s not enough to just put the content in the teacher’s hands. A series of onsite teacher workshops gives them the full Everglades experience, such as boat rides through the river of grass, allowing them to see first-hand what sawgrass looks and feels like and why it’s important to the wetlands. Teachers get to see amazing wildlife up close (but not too close), to create lifelong impressions, instilling a love and respect for nature that they will take back to the kids in the classroom, creating more Everglades advocates. 

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