ABSTRACT: When Europeans first arrived in North America, south Florida was a lush, subtropical wilderness of pine forest, hardwood hammocks, swamps, marshes, estuaries, and bays. Wetlands dominated the landscape. The region contained one of the largest wetlands in the continental United States, the Everglades, which itself was part of a larger watershed that extended for more than half the length of the Florida Peninsula.
During the last 100 years, the Everglades and its watershed have been greatly altered by man, primarily through drainage and development; however, parts of the natural system remain in public lands and waters that are protected at the southern end of the peninsula. In the remaining natural system, drainage and development have had severe environmental effects, such as large losses of soil through agriculturally induced subsidence, degradation of water quality, nutrient enrichment, contamination by pesticides and mercury, fragmentation of the landscape, loss of wetlands and wetland functions, widespread invasion by exotic species, impairment of estuarine and coastal resources, and significant declines in populations of native plant and animal species. Additionally, the large and increasing human population and the active agricultural development in the region are in intensive competition with the natural system for freshwater resources.
Recently, a consensus has developed among Federal and State agencies and environmental groups that the south Florida ecosystem, and the Everglades in particular, should be protected and restored, to the extent possible, to its predevelopment condition. A first and primary step in this undertaking would be the restoration of the predevelopment hydrologic conditions to the remaining natural system. As part of an interagency effort, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is providing scientific information that will contribute to the protection and restoration effort in south Florida. This information will be generated through such programs as the National Water-Quality Assessment and the South Florida Initiative. This report serves as an environmental review and framework for developing USGS programs in the region and stresses the critical role of water in natural and human systems and its importance as a link between those systems within south Florida.