Clinton Signs Legislation to Help Restore the Everglades

The Water Resources Development Act of 1996 specified the development of a comprehensive ecosystem restoration plan for the damaged Florida Everglades and provided for funding of habitat enhancement and ecosystem repair at dozens of water resource projects in the United States.

Summary of Event

In 1996, the environmental condition of the Florida Everglades had become a national concern because a century of development pressures and controversial environmental management had resulted in serious ecological damage in the area. The efforts of Vice President Al Gore, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, and activists such as Marjory Stoneman Douglas helped President Bill Clinton’s administration make restoration of the Everglades an environmental priority. On October 12, 1996, President Clinton signed the Water Resources Development Act of 1996 (WRDA-96) into law. WRDA-96 authorized numerous water resources development projects and programs to be carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Everglades;restoration
Water Resources Development Act (1996)
Florida;Everglades restoration
[kw]Clinton Signs Legislation to Help Restore the Everglades (Oct. 12, 1996)
[kw]Legislation to Help Restore the Everglades, Clinton Signs (Oct. 12, 1996)
[kw]Restore the Everglades, Clinton Signs Legislation to Help (Oct. 12, 1996)
[kw]Everglades, Clinton Signs Legislation to Help Restore the (Oct. 12, 1996)
Water Resources Development Act (1996)
Florida;Everglades restoration
[g]North America;Oct. 12, 1996: Clinton Signs Legislation to Help Restore the Everglades[09570]
[g]United States;Oct. 12, 1996: Clinton Signs Legislation to Help Restore the Everglades[09570]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Oct. 12, 1996: Clinton Signs Legislation to Help Restore the Everglades[09570]
[c]Environmental issues;Oct. 12, 1996: Clinton Signs Legislation to Help Restore the Everglades[09570]
Clinton, Bill
[p]Clinton, Bill;environmental policy
Gore, Al
Babbitt, Bruce
Douglas, Marjory Stoneman

The Water Resources Development Act is typically reauthorized by Congress every two years to provide for maintenance and improvements of the nation’s waterways and coastal areas. The 1996 reauthorization of WRDA included a mechanism to address escalating problems with the ecology of the Florida Everglades. Although restoration of the Everglades was just a part of the thirty-one new water resources projects and sixty-one preexisting projects approved in the legislation for areas around the United States, the act’s provisions addressing the Everglades drew attention because ongoing damage to the amazingly diverse Everglades ecosystem was the subject of great controversy.

The Everglades ecosystem essentially consists of a very shallow river that is about 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide and extremely slow moving. In the main channel, the river is only about 1 to 3 feet (30-90 centimeters) deep, and for most of its width, it is only around 6 inches (15 centimeters) deep. Historically, it has been one of the most productive and diverse ecosystems in the world. Plants native to the Everglades include live oak, mangrove, cypress, bay, willow, pond apple, wild lemon, wild orange, cucumber, orchids, bromeliads (epiphytes in the pineapple family), ferns, sedges, and vast regions of saw grass. Maidencane, white water lily, bladderwort, and spatterdock float in undisturbed areas. Periphyton algae anchor the base of the Everglades food web.

Of the many freshwater and saltwater fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and birds native to the Everglades, approximately 68 species are on the federal threatened and endangered lists, and even more appear on state lists. More than 350 bird species are native to the area, including the roseate spoonbill, ibises, storks, herons, and egrets. In the late twentieth century, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow population began a decline as a result of changes in Everglades ecology and moves toward proposed development, leading to a dispute among the Miccosukee Indians, the state of Florida, and federal agencies. Other unusual species, such as the snail kite—which feeds exclusively on the apple snail—are examples of those endangered by habitat destruction. The alligator is a keystone species, important in habitat maintenance. The West Indian manatee and bottlenose dolphin inhabit saltwater bays and coastal areas as part of the Everglades ecosystem. Of all the rare, endangered, and threatened animal species in the Everglades, perhaps the Florida panther is the most symbolic, with only about thirty remaining by the end of the twentieth century.

An aerial view of Everglades National Park.

(National Park Service)

The dense, pervasive saw grass, standing water, climate, and other environmental conditions discouraged early human exploration or settlement in or adjacent to the Everglades. In the nineteenth century, military forces entered the area to attack the Seminole Indians, who managed to survive as practically the only human inhabitants. When Philadelphia millionaire Hamilton Disston bought four million acres of Everglades land in 1881, it was still a robust ecosystem with a fairly pristine environment. By 1900, however, land in the Everglades was being drained for development, and wading birds were being exterminated for their feathers, which were in high demand for use in the millinery trade.

In the early twentieth century, an Everglades invasion began as Melaleuca trees (Melaleuca quinquenervia and an Australian native commonly known as the punk tree or paperbark tea tree) began forming dense stands, outcompeting native wetlands plants in marshes and helping to draining the wetlands. By far, however, the greatest sources of damage to the Everglades ecosystem were the levees, canals, and drainage systems built for agriculture. In 1912, a railroad was cut through the Everglades to Key West. Floridians appealed to the federal government for flood control as the surrounding areas were developed.

Along with increased population and increased regulation, however, came appreciation of the natural quality of the Everglades; this appreciation eventually led to the U.S. Congress’s authorization of the area as a national park in 1934. Meanwhile, Lake Okeechobee was disconnected from the Everglades by the Herbert Hoover Dike, a seven-year project completed in 1937. In the mid-twentieth century, increased droughts and fires associated with changes in the land further deteriorated the ecosystem, which was finally dedicated in 1947 as the 1.3-million-acre Everglades National Park.

By 1959, canals, levees, dams, and other water-control devices separated the northern Everglades from the rest of the ecosystem. Throughout the twentieth century, millions of people moved into adjacent areas, and increased farm runoff, storm-water overflow, and wastewater discharge further damaged the Everglades ecosystem’s water quality and habitat. Congress responded to public concern in 1970 by setting minimum flows into Everglades National Park—an unusual move of direct intervention. However, the minimum-flow program was not comprehensive enough to result in significant improvement in the environmental quality of the complex ecosystem. Further, in 1979, the South Florida Water Management District began pumping untreated water into the central Everglades.

In the early 1990’s, environmental activists, inspired by Marjory Stoneman Douglas and others, agitated for increased environmental responsibility for the Everglades by the agricultural sector, the state of Florida, and the federal government. Vice President Al Gore and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt made the Everglades into one of the top environmental issues of the Clinton administration.

WRDA-1996 authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to develop a comprehensive restoration plan for the Everglades and submit it for congressional approval. The act also authorized the Critical Projects Program Critical Projects Program at a maximum federal cost of $75 million. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District were to unite in restoring the Everglades ecosystem. A major task in this collaboration was the crafting of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a plan for restoring and preserving South Florida’s natural ecosystems while enhancing water supplies and maintaining flood control. Other resources were also committed to Everglades restoration; the Farm Bill of 1996, signed just weeks before the Water Resources Development Act, earmarked $200 million for land acquisition and augmentation of water storage capacity in the Everglades. Much more restoration work remained, but CERP was a notable beginning.


By the mid-1980’s, the Army Corps of Engineers was shifting toward a more open, public form of management and environmental accountability, including environmental restoration, in contrast with its history of “conquering” the environment. In Florida after the passage of WRDA-96, Corps district engineer Colonel Terry Rice Rice, Terry encouraged and challenged a citizens’ group to work toward a new plan. The creation of the comprehensive plan for the Everglades was an opportunity for the Corps to apply ecosystem management and use open, public processes in planning.

The case of the Everglades showed the importance of environmental activists in helping U.S. states and the federal government to be more accountable for environmental management. WRDA-96 and its resultant restoration plans exemplify a trend at the end of the twentieth century toward coordination among state, federal, and local agencies and organizations in attempts to reverse negative ecological impacts in regions of international biological significance. Everglades;restoration
Water Resources Development Act (1996)
Florida;Everglades restoration

Further Reading

  • Cech, Thomas V. Principles of Water Resources: History, Development, Management, and Policy. 2d ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2005. Presents a broad-based look at almost all aspects of water resources and related issues. Includes a brief history of U.S. Army Corps actions and major policies.
  • Douglas, Marjory Stoneman. The Everglades: River of Grass. 50th anniversary ed. Sarasota, Fla.: Pineapple Press, 1997. Commemorative reprint edition of a classic work (first published in 1947) that was among the first to galvanize public awareness about the Everglades.
  • _______. Florida: The Long Frontier. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. Provides historical perspective on the long fight to save the Everglades. This work helped spark renewed public attention to the area.
  • Grunwald, Michael. The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Dissects the political wars that have surrounded the issues related to the Everglades.
  • Kelly, Mary Sidney, and Gretel Schueller. “The 104th Congress.” Audubon 99 (January/February, 1997): 94. Summarizes the environmentally important legislation passed by the 104th Congress. Includes discussion of how WRDA-96 benefited restoration of the Florida Everglades.
  • Lodge, Thomas E. The Everglades Handbook: Understanding the Ecosystem. 2d ed. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2005. One of the most efficient and usable guides available concerning the biogeography and ecosystem functions of the Everglades.
  • Panel to Review the Critical Ecosystems Studies Initiative. Science and the Greater Ecosystem Restoration: An Assessment of the Critical Ecosystems Studies Initiative. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2003. Presents a technical and policy examination of the new methods being used in repairing the Everglades.

U.S. Congress Updates Water Pollution Law

Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Is Signed

U.S. Congress Requires Safe Drinking Water

Florida Passes the Surface Water Improvement and Management Act

Environmentalists Defeat the Cross-Florida Barge Canal

U.S. Government Funds Everglades Restoration