The old dream for the Florida Everglades was to ditch, drain, and develop the vast swampland into productive real estate. Today, in one of the most ambitious conservation projects in the country, Florida has begun turning the half-dried Everglades back into the swamp of sawgrass and lily pads it was at the turn of the century. The goal is to complete the restoration by the year 2000.
Two years into Gov. Bob Graham's effort to revive the swamp, water is once again filling the meandering Kissimmee riverbed and spreading into the once and future marshland beyond its banks.
The Everglades is a natural phenomenon unique in the world. But two severe droughts have also convinced Floridians that the swamp -- like a giant sponge -- is crucial to storing and filtering south Florida's water supply.
``In our enthusiasm to build cities, we have nearly destroyed the heart of Florida,'' says Governor Graham.
``Nobody had any idea that to get rid of the water in the Everglades was to get rid of the drinking water,'' says author and longtime Everglades advocate, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.
Restoring the Everglades -- buying land, filling in channels, plugging ditches, coaxing back snowy egrets, and saving the two dozen or so remaining Florida panthers -- will cost somewhere near $350 million. On Tuesday, the governor and his cabinet voted to spend about $4 million to buy 9,000 acres to add to the watershed.
Graham is seeking some of the restoration project's money from the federal government. The biggest challenge ahead for the project is winning support from ``recalcitrant'' federal agencies, he says. ``Many decisions on the future of the Everglades will be made outside of Florida.''
The heads of the nation's leading environmentalist groups -- such as the Sierra Club, Nature Conservancy, and the National Parks and Conservation Association -- collected here recently in support of the Everglades program. But the signals from the Reagan administration were more ambiguous.
National Parks Director William P. Mott canceled his appearance here at the last moment, after getting as close as Orlando, Fla., for what a spokesman called possible political implications. Graham, the chief sponsor of the conference, intends to run for the Senate this year against Republican Sen. Paula Hawkins.
The rest of the federal money being sought is for buying Everglades land for parks and preserves. This will be the critical year for winning those funds, says Paul Pritchard, president of the National Parks and Conservation Association. With Graham leaving office and the federal budget process changing under the Gramm-Rudman law, he says, ``The door is closing on us.''
The Everglades are under another kind of pressure as well. Each year, 100,000 to 150,000 more people move into the urban areas surrounding the Everglades in south Florida. The tar-black fields of peat left when swamp is drained are rich farmland for vegetables and sugar cane, and citrus orchards are moving south into reclaimed marshland, fleeing central Florida's winter freezes.
All told, the different types of swamps that make up the greater Everglades are half drained, 95 percent of the 21/2 million wading birds here in the 1930s are gone, and the panthers are down to between 24 and 30.
Further, two serious south Florida droughts in the past decade indicated that more was at stake than a rare natural habitat. The water that is stored and filtered clean in the Everglades supplies between 15 and 20 percent of south Florida's water, according to Nathanial Reed, of the South Florida Water Management District.
The ditches that drain swampland, in effect, send off fresh water gushing directly into the ocean. And when fresh water is not seeping through the Everglades system, saltwater seeps inland to foul the groundwater.
The first major step in returning the swamp to its former glory is to stopper a section of the man-made channel that sends the Kissimmee River on a beeline for Lake Okeechobee. Channeling the Kissimmee into a 200-foot-wide, 30-foot-deep canal in the 1960s drained almost 200,000 acres of wetlands.
In the past two years, weirs have been built across the Kissimmee canal to send water back into the oxbows of the old riverbed. Within the last three months, water has begun flooding over former marshland as well.
Mr. Reed stresses that the Everglades will never be a ``natural'' system again. But it can be managed to work like one, he says.
There are skeptics. Pat McCaffrey, director of government relations for the Florida Cattlemen's Association, says: ``I'm far from convinced that we really get anything for our $100 million [on the Kissimmee project].'' The effort to save the Everglades, he says, is more for ``emotional, esthetic reasons'' than to augment water supplies.