South Florida Water Management District
The variety of water management techniques em-
ployed throughout South Florida's history gives testi-
mony to the assortment of interests and motivations
that have guided attempts to control the water resource.
Today's South Florida Water Management District is
truly an evolutionary product, a synthesis of changes
occurring on a variety of levels. Navigational improve-
mnents, once of primary concern, receded as require-
mc1lents for drainage and flood control increased. Flood
control became secondary when drought conditions
created critically low water levels, and salt water intru-
sion threatened coastal water supplies.
What follows is a chronicle of tanl's efforts to tame
South Florida's water resource. This effort is traced
from the first primitive attempts made by Florida's
Indian populations, to our current system of water man-
agement; a system designed to meet the needs and de-
nmands of a complex, modern world, while providing for
an unpredictable future.
The Watery Wilderness
In its natural state, South Florida can be described
in one word WET. Rainfall occurs at an average an-
nual rate of about 54 inches. This statistic has greater
meaning when added to the fact that most of it tends
to fall during the spring and summer months, collecting
on virtually flat land. The combination of concentrated
periods of rainfall and level terrain produce a continous-
ly swampy, flooded condition, a characteristic which,
for a long time, made South Florida a less than desire-
able spot for human settlement.
rC Indian tribes were the first to settle in South Florida
and attempt to make a living in this soggy location.
Their lifestyle was disposed toward living in harmony
with their environment, avoiding any action which
might result in a major disruption. Consequently, the
Indians' demands on the water resource were few. They
required only the digging of a few crude canals to im-
prove navigation, and to afford a measure of protection
for ceremonial burial grounds.
Ponce de Leon's search for a special kind of water,
the Fountain of Youth, opened up the Florida territory
to settlement by western man. However, except for
some exploratory travels, the Spanish avoided the
swampy interior, settling to the north along the coast.
During Spain's 300 year rule, South Florida contin-
ued to be wet. By 1821, Spain was ready to be rid of
land that was thought to be useless; Florida was deeded
to the United States for $5 million, and a new territory
inauan serteements, Spanish rulership, and the railroad
industry are just a few, of the influences which have
guided water management in South Florida.
Vol. 5, No. 1
was acquired. Land ownership conferred both social
status and political power; this was true for govern-
ments, as well as individuals. For this reason, the new
territory was viewed as a valuable acquisition. The fact
that most of the land was constantly under two feet of
Water seemed immaterial.
Statehood was conferred in 1845. With it came the
first attempts to alter natural conditions to conform to
man's standard of living. Buckingham Smith of St.
Augustine was appointed by the Secretary of the
Treasury to make the first inspection of Florida's lower
peninsula. Smith's 1848 report to the legislature in-
dicated that the Everglades could be reclaimed by
digging canals and deepening streams flowing to each
coast. Smith encouraged drainage based on natural
water movement, and believed that such drainage meth-
ods would spur a new agricultural industry.
When Florida became part of the union, 500,000
acres of land were set aside for internal improvements.
With Smith's report describing the benefits to be reaped
from drainage efforts, requests for purchase of overflow
lands began to pour in. The U.S. Congress put all swamp
and overflow lands into state ownership through the
Swamp Lands Act of 1850. Efforts to reclaim the land
were to be financed by the sale of land to private inter-
ests. A board of internal improvements was established
in 1851 to negotiate these transactions.
The progress made by this early board was slow. By
1855, increasing dismay over the state's decrepit trans-
portation facilities prompted the legislature's push to
reorganize the internal improvement effort. A new act
established the Trustees of the Internal Improvement
Fund. The Trustees received control of unsold swamp
and overflow lands, as well as the authority to guarantee
payment of interest on bonds which were to be issued
to encourage railroad construction.
Drainage Efforts Begin
The Internal Improvement Fund was to receive and
review applications for canal and railroad projects.
Those that met the Trustee's requirements would re-
ceive state assistance. As further enticement, companies
were to receive a 200 foot right-of-way through state
lands, and alternate sections of land six miles deep on
both sides of the railroad track. The Fund was also em-
powered to dispense bonds up to $10,000 per mile for
the purchase of rails and rolling stock, and issued bonds
for construction of bridges and trestles. State bonds
were pledged in promise of payment if the railroad
companies failed to pay principal and interest. The ex-
tent to which the Fund was willing to go out on a limb
financially in support of railroad construction in the
state indicates the close connection between land
drainage, transportation, and economic growth. The
railroad companies were forced into drainage projects,
to enable them to have the dry land on which to build
the track. Completed railroads and drained lands beside
the track attracted settlers to areas that were previously
The Civil War dealt a devastating blow to Florida's
infant railroad industry, by disrupting the production
schedule before the roads could become a "paying pro-
position." As a result, the Internal Improvement Fund
was forced to assume bond repayment.
The Internal Improvement Fund soon realized that
its financial resources were not adequate to meet the
layers of obligations that they were facing. The Trustees
responded to their debt-ridden condition by attempting
to increase land sales.
Pamphlets like this one were distributed through-
out northern states during the 1890's to attract
settlers to Florida.
Designed to Convey in a Concise
and Interesting Form the Infor-
mation Desired by Every Travel-
ler on the Clyde Line to the fair
" Land of Sunshine and Flowers."
PuMtbhed by the Paeenor
Department of the
CLYDE STEAMSHIP COMPANY
Cheibrough Bullin, 19 State St.
oppodte Battery Puk, New York
U .- U
Dredge tenders were a common sight during the
early 1880's, serving as a mobile headquarters
for Disston's construction crews.
The situation grew steadily worse. By 1877, the bank-
rupt Fund was in receivership, and in possession of mil-
lions of worthless bonds. To save the Fund, agents for
the Trustees needed to find an immediate buyer for a
large parcel of land. The search turned up a Philadel-
phian by the name of Hamilton Disston, whose nego-
tiation of two huge land deals directed Florida's eco-
r" omic development, and became the foundation for all
drainage efforts that followed.
The Disston Era
Hamilton Disston was part of a wealthy Philadelphia
family that made its money in the tool-making business.
Disston's business sense caused him to view Florida's
land sale fiasco as an opportunity to acquire a lot of
land at a bargain price.
In 1881, Disston contracted to drain land in return
for one-half of the acreage he could reclaim. Similar
trade agreements had gone sour in the past, and
Disston's initial deal fell through. However, Disston was
persuaded by Florida's Governor William Bloxham to
purchase four million acres outright, at twenty-five
cents per acre. Following the purchase, Disston estab-
lished the Atlantic and Gulf Coast Canal and Land
Company to handle drainage, and several smaller
companies to deal with land sales.
For the first time, a plan was conceived for the drain-
age of a large land area as a unit. Construction started
in 1882, with the formation of a Lake Okeechobee out-
tto the Gulf coast, via the Caloosahatchee River. In
the same year, the Southport Canal was cut between
Lake Tohopekaliga and Lake Cypress. The St. Cloud
canal connecting Lake Tohopekaliga and East Lake
Tohopekaliga was completed next. By the fall of 1883,
Disston's company had opened navigation and increased
drainage from the Gulf to the Kissimmee River.
The completed project did not accomplish all it set
out to do, but it was a significant step for a number of
reasons. It was the first large scale, regional drainage
project. As such, it attracted world-wide attention to
Florida, and set a precedent for future development.
The project also pointed out that drainage of the area
was more complex and expensive than originally estim-
ated. Project planners also came to realize that drain-
age alone could not solve all of the region's water
The Disston Construction Program (1881-l184)
was the first large-scale drainage effort attempt-
ed in Sou th Florida.
Railroads Spur New Growth
Disston's drainage project also revived the depressed
railroad industry. Florida's southwest coast owes much
of its development to Henry Plant's Atlantic Coastline.
Attracted by generous land subsidies, he bought the
South Florida line which ran from Sanford to Kiss-
immee, and quickly extended it to Tampa in 1884.
Absorption of many smaller Florida railroads resulted
in the establishment of the Plant Investment Company
in 1892, an enterprise that claimed six hundred out of
the total of 1,665 miles of track existing in the state.
llant was contemplating a line from Ft. Myers to Miami
when he died in 1899, at eighty years of age.
Another railroad entrepreneur, Henry M. Flagler,
occupies an even more significant place in Florida's his-
tory. Flagler's railroad and hotel construction was a
statewide pheiinoenon. tlagle started by building a
railroad from Jacksonville to Saint Augustine, the locale
of his lavish Ponce de Leon Hotel. Flagler proceeded
down the entire east coast of the state, into areas which
had been inaccessible. In 1893, he negotiated a charter
and land grant to allow construction from Daytona
r south to Miami. By 1894, the line reached West Palm
Beach, an unincorporated community with 1,000
people. Flagler received encouragement to continue
southward when a winter freeze in 1894-1895 killed
most of the state's citrus everywhere except Dade
County. In April 1896, the first trains reached Miami.
By 1912, the Flagler line stretched to Key West.
Disston's drainage efforts, coupled with access to the
drained lands made possible by Plant and Flagler had a
tremendous impact on the direction of development in
South Florida. Wealthy businessmen like Disston and
Flagler were in a position to be able to provide the sort
of financial backing beyond the means of a young state
like Florida. In exchange for their monetary support
and for drainage improvements, backers were paid with
rained land, which they could develop as they saw fit.
Disston built up a sizable sugar cane industry with
drained land; the railroads of Plant and Flagler brought
new settlement, new industry and new growth to South
Florida. Funding, planning and economic goals were a
reflection of the variety of interests trying to make a
profit in South Florida. Consequently, the region's de-
velopment proceeded in a very haphazard, disjointed
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, drainage
efforts dominated by private businesses came to an end
as well. In 1899, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, act-
ing in accordance with the River and Harbor Act of the
same year, began a survey of the Kissinmnie/Okeecho-
bee/Caloosahatchee water system, and the affects of
the Disston Drainage Project in that area. The Corps re-
commended to Congress navigational improvements
that the Corps eventually implemented. The most sig-
nificant result was the involvement of governmental
agencies in a water management effort. This involve-
ment was recognition that private commercial concerns,
such as those represented by Disston, Plant and Flagler,
acting solely in their own interests, would not likely
lead to a balanced, well-developed territory. From now
on, various government and public agencies would be
drawn into the water management process, with an eye
toward balancing commercial development against tlhe
Florida's nineteenth governor, Napoleon Bonaparte
" Broward, was an ardent supporter of the change in phil-
osophy. Broward felt the people should be more in-
volved with their government, and that the influence en-
joyed by big business should be reduced. Part of his
Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward actively
involved government and public agencies in tie estab-
lishment of drainage and water management goals.
platform included Everglades drainage; Broward felt a
state drainage effort would save public lands from being
ravaged by the railroad companies and an Internal Im-
provement Fund Broward felt was dominated by rail-
As a result of Broward's election in 1905, the Board
of Drainage Commissioners was created in the same year
by the Florida legislature to oversee water management
and land development statewide. The Board's primary
purpose was to drain the swamps and overflow lands in
the state through the construction of a system of canals,
levees, drains, dikes and reservoirs. However, the U.S.
Supreme Court found that such agencies were not auth-
orized by the state's constitution.
The legislation was found to be in violation of con-
stitutional law, and was struck down. In 1907, an
amendment was added to the body of legislation that
created the Board. The amendment created an agency
responsible for drainage of the Everglades area only;
thus, the Everglades Drainage District came into being.
In its first year of existence, the Everglades Drainage
District (EDD) conducted studies to determine the
drainage required, and to formulate plans. Construction
of the Miami, North New River and South New River
canals was begun at this time. By 1913, the Everglades
area was the subject of one final, intensive report. The
Randolph Report, as it came to be known, was accepted
by the legislature. The Report suggested that the Ever-
glades could be drained at a cost equal to the value of
the drained land. The Report was responsible for the re-
organization of the Everglades Drainage District in
1913. Changes were made in funding, from the levying
ot an acreage tax, to the use ot bonds based on tax re-
turns. The resulting shift in the tax structure, to a sys-
tem based on needed benefits rather than ability to
finance, allowed real construction to get under way.
Initial construction efforts centered on Lake Okee-
( obee. A system of canals was designed and construct-
ed to channel excess water from the Lake to the Atlant-
ic Ocean. Everglades region water levels were reduced
as the canal system drew off excess rainfall.
Construction efforts between 1913 and 1927 pro-
duced six major drainage canals and many smaller ca-
nals, totaling 440 miles of levees, and 16 locks and
dams. Partial drainage of the Everglades attracted farm
settlement, with the first wave arriving between 1910
and 1915. Most of the cultivated land was developed
During the 1920's the pace of waterway construction
began to slow down. Hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 put
an end to all construction by the Everglades Drainage
District. Wind tides on Lake Okeechobee caused such
devastating overflows, that the Okeechobee Drainage
District was formed to prevent future destruction.
Working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the
Okeechobee Drainage District improved the region's
flood control through the construction of floodway
channels, control gates and major levees along the
In addition to the creation of the Okeechobee Drain-
age District, 1929 also brought the beginning of the
Depression as well the end of the Florida land boom. In
1931, the Everglades Drainage District was forced to de-
fault on its bonds.
The intervention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engin-
eers resulted in a change in approach to management of
the water resource. The Corps' survey of the Everglades
Drainage District required the participation of the Fed-
eral government in future development of the area.
The Corps' review highlighted several weaknesses in
the Everglades Drainage District's system. In spite of
extensive construction, only the St. Lucie and Caloos-
ahatchee canals were adequate channels from Lake
Okeechobee to the sea; most of the other canals lacked
sufficient slope. The Corps also found that the 1913
engineering plan suggested by the Randolph Report had
not been followed; benefits resulting from the changes
made in the plan seemed to profit landowners and cor-
porate property holders, neglecting other interests in
-- Maor Canas Incorporated In
South Florida Water Management ..., FORT
District Prolect. l AUDtRDALE
---Remainder Of Works
* Locks & Spillways
S D D W MIAMI
EVERGLADES DRAINAGE DISTRICT WORKS 1905-1948
The Everglades Drainage Dis-
trict works became the foun-
dation for the Central and
Southern Florida Flood Con-
trol Project begun in 1949.
This public docu-
ment was promul-
gated at an annual
cost of $371.12 or
$.074 per copy to
illustrate from a his-
the events and phil-
osophies which in-
fluenced water man-
agement efforts in
Sou th Florida.
_~ -, ._ J -1JL
Flood Control Becomes
a New Goal
Finally, the hurricanes of 1926 and 1928 made clear
to all concerned that while existing canals are able to
S handle routine drainage efficiently, they could not ab-
sorb excess water resulting from severe weather condi-
tions quickly enough to prevent flooding. The destruct-
ive flooding in the Lake Okeechobee area illuminated
the need for flood control. Flood control was a new
piece added to the water management puzzle, joining
navigation and drainage for land reclamation on the list
of problems demanding solutions.
Initially, the Corps presented separate plans for flood
control and for navigation. The state was expected to
share the cost, provide land and maintain the works
when construction was complete. The scope of these
plans was limited to the Lake Okeechobee area. Miami
and its surrounding area were not included; any flooding
in those areas was considered a local problem, to be
solved by local residents.
A change in Federal policy occurred in 1936, with
Congressional adoption of the Flood Control Act of
1936. The Act delineated a policy which dictated that
tihe Federal government "should improve, or participate
in the improvement of waters for flood control pur-
poses, if the populations of surrounding areas would
suffer without these renovations."
Excessive dry spells during the years 1931 through
1945 brought a new problem to the foreground ----
drought. Groundwater levels were becoming so low,
salt water contamination threatened the municipal wells
of coast cities. Land that was normally under water,
began to appear. Thousands of acres ignited, consuming
precious muck soil.
Now, the truly complex nature of the region's en-
vironment, and man's demands upon it, was revealed to
those trying to manage the water resources. Past im-
provements had been designed to increase run-off to
lakes and streams, not to retain water in the soil. Re-
claimed land was quickly put to use housing the growing
population and supporting crops, reducing the amount
of land available to retain water. This dilemma was ag-
gravated by the uncoordinated nature of drainage ef-
forts made in the past. This long period of excessive
drought came to an end with the hurricane of 1946.
Hurricane winds surged over Central and Southern
Florida, leaving water at levels that took months to
These weather extremes pointed to the need for a reg.
ional master plan, a plan that would balance the de
mnands for flood protection and as well as for a reliable
In 1948, another Flood Control Act was enacted by
Congress, creating the Central and Southern Flood Con-
trol District (FCD) in Florida. The FCD was charged
with the responsibility of meeting the need for flood
protection and sufficient water supply, and to prevent
salt water intrusion, encourage agricultural and urban
development, and preserve fish and wildlife.
Scenes like this one were common in
the 1920's, underscoring the need for effective
In spite ot these lotty and varied ambitions, the
FCD's first concern was flood control. In its early years,
the project was handled by the U.S. Army Corps of
Engineers, responsible for design and construction of
project works. The FCD was to act as a local authority,
providingg lands and assuming operation and mainten-
.nce of the project works upon completion.
The project is a series of canals, levees, water teten-
sion areas, pump stations and gated water control struc-
tures. Much of the construction relied on the founda-
tion established by the efforts of Disston and the Ever-
glades and Okeechobee Drainage Districts. New con-
struction followed natural hydrologic basins, using
gravity and the slope of the land to drain water off into
the canals. Where the slope was not sufficient to move
the water, massive pump stations were erected. Struc-
tures with movable gates also assisted by channeling ex-
cess water away, or by retaining water when closed.
The increasing importance of Lake Okeechobee as a
water storage area was supplemented by the creation of
three Water Conservation Areas. Located west of Dade,
Broward and Palm Beach counties, the Water Conserva-
tion Areas are ringed by levees which allow water levels
to be controlled. The existence of this additional storage
_ea provided the first successful means of dealing with
outh Florida's drainage problems. The Water Conserva-
tion Areas separated inland, Everglades run-off from
that originating along the coast. Previously, water from
inland was handled by coastal canals, which simply
could not handle the volumes of water necessary to ef-
fectively keep either area dry.
Water Conservation Areas retain water over underground
aquifiers to recharge the water supply during the dry season.
The Water Conservation Areas also allow retention of
water from the canal system, alleviating the loss of
water which otherwise would have been discharged to
the sea. The Water Conservation Areas also protect the
water supply by recharging underlying aquifer forma-
tions, underground rock layers which retain rainfall and
supply most of the fresh water for the coastal pop-
By the late 1940's, salt water intruding inland and
contaminating fresh water supplies was identified as a
major problem in South Florida. The FCD took steps
immediately to fit all existing coastal canals with struct-
ures to control water levels and maintain the head of
fresh water necessary to ward off increasing levels of
salt water intrusion.
....: .. -. i
Salinity barriers are
numerous along Sou tlh
Florida's coast, pro-
tecting urban water
supplies from salt
From 1949 through 1969, most of the efforts of the
Army Corps of Engineers and the FCD consisted of
building, maintaining and operating the assortment of
canals, structures, and barriers described above. At the
same time, South Florida's population was increasing by
rkaps and bounds, a phenomenon that continues today.
he demand on water, which was largely agricultural,
expanded to include industrial and residential types of
consumption. Water management goals were altered to
reflect these changes; flood control receded as a top
priority in the face of more strident demands for a
larger, more dependable water supply.
In 1969, the National Environmental Protection Act
was passed, requiring that the FCD consider damage to
the environment when making water management deci-
sions. This action reflected the increasing value being
placed upon the natural wilderness and its wildlife, and
their qualitative impact on our lives. The growing con-
cern for preservation of the environment, and other
complex issues, prompted the Governor's Conference
on Water Management. The Conference recommended
development of a comprehensive water use plan for the
state, reinforced the importance of establishing environ-
mental and water quality controls, and asked for the
restoration of lakes and marshes.
Water Management For
The Governor's Conference on water management
and its recommendations primed the legislative pump,
for it was closely followed by the passage ill 1972 of the
Water Resources Act. This legislation broadened the
authority and responsibilities of the FCD) and other
water management districts in the state, charging them
with the control and regulation of ground and surface
water supplies, and their use. The Water Resources Act
also transformed the conference recommendation ot de-
velopment of a comprehensive water use plan into a
legislative mandate, emphasizing the need to plan for
the future, as well as meet today's demands.
The legislation changed the name of the FCD in
1976, to more accurately project its new responsibilities
and functions. The South Florida Water Management
District (SFWMD), as it is now known, also experienced
some boundary changes. The District was redefined
along hydrogeologic basins rather than political limits,
to allow more effective planning and management.
Water management procedures have made a transition
over the years. Excavation, construction of barriers and
use of mechanical means of channeling and retaining
water, have given way to the development of regulatory
and permitting processes, and planning for the future.
Groundwater withdrawals are now determined by
District Review and Permit. New development must
meet basic requirements regarding drainage and dispos-
ition of excess surface water, before construction can
It is recognition of this evolutionary pattern, and its
continuation, that has been responsible for the flexibili-
ty built into today's South Florida Water Management
District. The South Florida Water Management District
has been created to respond to the changes which have
occurred in demands made upon the water resource,
changes which will continue.
Wise water management requires constant readjust-
Iment, fine tuning, and revision to deal adequately with
a system which is always in a state of flux. Up to now,
the SFWMD has been able to claim success in its at-
tempts to rise to the challenge of balancing an unpred-
ictable natural resource against a variety of unlimited
demands. The flexible approach and regional scope of
the District's planning and regulatory efforts should
allow successful meeting of the challenge of water man-
agement into the future.
In Depth Report
South Florida Water Management District
P. 0. Box "V", West Palm Beach FI. 33402
Address Correction Requested
U. S. Postage
West Pahl Beach, Fl.
Permit No. 8
Rec'd Gee 8 ienson VIPB
JoCb ............ ." "
HANS WfLFFP b.
GEE AND JENSEN CONS ENGR
2019 FKEFCH(PEF BLVD
WEST PALM BFACH Ft 33409