The Everglades: Evolution of Management in a Turbulent Ecosystem

Stephen S. Light,
South Florida Water Management District, West Palm Beach, Florida,USA
Lance H. Gunderson and C.S. Holling,
Department of Zoology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, USA
from Gunderson, L. H., C. S. Holling and S. S. Light. Barriers & Bridges to the Renewal of Ecosystems and Institutions. 1995. Columbia University Press, New York.
Water management in the Everglades of Florida has undergone a dramatic evolution during this century. The history of the management institutions and the strategies they have pursued reflect a pattern that is similar to observed dynamics of ecosystems. Both systems go through four phases: exploitation, conservation, creative destruction and reorganization. The institutional configuration in the Everglades has been through these stages at least four times, each cycle precipitated by a crisis (creative destruction), which resulted in some type of system reconfiguration centered on the theme of a quest for control. The first of these four periods of water management is described as Cut N Try (1903-1947) and reflects early state efforts to dig canals in an attempt to control the hydrologic variation in the system. The second and most prominent era involved implementation of the massive federal/state public works project (Turning Green Lines into Red; 1948-1970) that created levees, canals, pumps and operational guidelines in order to prevent flood damage. The third era, No Easy Answers (1971-1982) attempted to restructure the existing flood control district into a system-wide management agency (The South Florida Water Management District) to solve the internal partitioning problems associated with the project constructed during period two. The most recent era, Repairing the Everglades, (1983-present) is characterized by attempts to restore the natural values of the system involving the emergence of adaptive management strategies in the midst of continued reductionist plans.

Crises or surprises arise from exogenous variation (such as tropical storms) or endogenous dynamics (such as eutrophication of native marshes due to agricultural runoff). Two major crises (floods of 1903 and 1947) resulted in dramatic institutional changes and creation of massive infrastructure. More recent crises, such as the droughts of 1963, 1971, and the floods of 1983 have increased state-level water management capacity and changed operational rules for partitioning water within the system bounds. Externalities associated with runoff from agriculture have triggered a variety of crises, resulting in expensive lawsuits between governments.

Barriers and bridges to system management depend upon views of how (a) nature operates, (b) institutions function, and (c) institutions and ecosystem management interact. Views of nature that recognize nature as dynamic and evolutionary provide bridges by changing management goals from control to resiliency. Barriers have arisen due to institutions that function based on operating premises that are less that system-wide in scope, and their demonstrated difficulty in learning from experience or as a result of new information. Bridges have been formed through the work of shadow networks such as the Everglades Coalition and informal collegia associated with adaptive management workshops. The coupling of ecosystem dynamics with institutions creates a theoretical basis for the types of institutions and strategies needed as bridging mechanisms.

A century of management has seen a dramatic transformation of a vast graminoid wetland into a brittle system managed by one of the world's largest public works projects. The view now of the future of the Everglades, is one of cautious optimism. Adaptive strategies have led to an integrated understanding and to increased cooperation. However, many elements of existing competency traps and pathologies associated with "command and control" strategies inherent in the system still exist. But the system seems poised to move out of bureaucratic gridlock, and hopefully towards a reunion and renewal of this unique and treasured resource.

Evolution of Management in a Turbulent Ecosystem /