The world’s slowest river

An alligator plays Peek-a-Boo in the Everglades.I’ve visited Florida several times, even lived in the northeastern part of the state about five years in my 20s – but the want-to has been my closest approach to the Everglades. In my younger years, I must admit seeing it as just another tourist attraction, a huge swamp, home for some birds, and maybe a few alligators.

A recent airboat ride in the Everglades showed me it’s way more than a tourist attraction.

In keeping with a widespread and growing technological trend, Blackwater Airboat Tours’ “storefront” is a professional-looking website with all the information one could want. I called, got a price that seemed reasonable, and scheduled a ride on the sunset tour.

Our captain pulled into the designated meeting point, a public boat ramp a few miles west of the edge of uber-urban Fort Lauderdale, his all-white GMC crew cab pulling 20 feet of airboat. It was big and red, eight bucket-style seats (one for Capt. Jason Freeman) on the deck of the flat-bottom hull. Bolted to the back a converted automobile V-8 engine spun a four-blade propeller capable of pushing the craft an impressive 60 mph across the grass. We did not go that fast – there was too much to see.

The Everglades is the world’s slowest-moving river. When rain fills Lake Okeechobee, in south-central Florida, the lake overflows into the 50-foot wide, 1.5 million acre water filtration system and flows about one meter an hour toward the Gulf of Mexico, at the southern tip of the Sunshine State.

If I walked that slowly, I’d fall down. During the dry season, it doesn’t flow at all.

It is home to a variety of winged and walking critters. Alligators, of course, and lots of herons, White Ibis and Grackels – and the colorful Purple Gallinule that escaped from the Miami zoo during Hurricane Andrew and found a new home in the ’Glades.

The critters, it turns out, are simply an indicator of the quality of water we humans are trying to use. But nearly a century ago, we discovered all that fertile land and water was more profitable growing houses, and enough food to feed the new residents. The Corps of Engineers diverted water from the Everglades to the Atlantic Ocean.

Until a few years ago, critter populations were falling in the Glades, along with the river’s water levels, and burgeoning human populations were increasingly under water restrictions on the Atlantic coast.

“Seventy-three percent of Florida is water; we’ve got water all over” Jason remarked as we talked about his favorite place to work and recreate. “How are we out of water?”

In recent years, expensive efforts have been made to reverse the degradation of Florida’s largest water supply. Unfortunately, in Freeman’s mind, one of the ideas has included discussions about building desalination plants in Florida to turn sea water into drinking water.

“I don’t want it as a solution,” he said. “I want it as a backup.”

Demands on water supplies, like those on roads and garages, always expand to exceed their upgraded capacity. A pipeline to carry two million gallons a day into Adams County to back up existing supplies would – history is witness – soon be serving the needs of thousands more as yet unhoused residents.

As, likely, will demand placed on desalination plants built to back up water supplies from the system of which the Everglades is part.

It was a remarkable fun educational experience riding the airboat among the birds, turtles and ’gators. It also was educational; Captain Jason clearly understands the history and function of his home-away-from-home. I look forward to a chance to repeat the experience.

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