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Same old song: Greed drowns another species

December 28, 1997

It's a tiny wisp of a bird, the Cape Sable seaside sparrow. You probably won't even notice after it's gone.

When the floodgates crank open at a dike west of Miami, millions of gallons of water will surge south toward a remote section of Everglades

National Park, home to one of the endangered sparrow's last breeding colonies.

The birds, which nest in grasses close to the ground, could be flooded out. Many experts believe the colony is unlikely to survive.

Everglades water is watched closely by government agencies. This year the levels are high again because of abundant rain. That's usually good for birds and wildlife, but not always. This year it's definitely not so good for the Cape Sable seaside sparrow.

There's so much water in the Everglades that the folks in charge need to flush the overflow someplace. If they send it to the park's eastern marshes, it might damage some homes that were built there.

So instead they're preparing to send the water farther west, where it could wash out a few hundred olive-colored songbirds, birds so rare that most Floridians have never laid eyes on them.

Pumping, due to start last week, was postponed because of publicity. A hard rain could force the issue, a decision to be made by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District.

Officials in those agencies aren't happy about annihilating the Cape Sable seaside sparrow, but they say they've got few options. They say they're not allowed to flood private property.

That would be property known as the 81/2 Square Mile Area, notable as one of the only sites west of the Everglades levee where houses went up—about 350 of them. Why that was permitted to happen is no mystery. Somebody was trying to make money.

Now, whenever there's heavy rainfall, the residents of the 8 1/2 Square Mile Area get flooded. That's because they live in a swamp, and swamps flood; it literally comes with the territory. And when flooding occurs, the folks who live out there complain. Who wouldn't?

Allowing houses to be built on the wet side of a levee wasn't the most stupid thing Dade County politicians have ever done, but it's close. The price of that stupidity might well be the extermination of another species.

All that overflow water is being aimed away from the misbegotten houses in the 81/2 Square Mile Area, and straight toward the nesting grounds of the Cape Sable seasides. Biologists say this will be the fourth consecutive season that the sparrows cannot breed in the western part of the park, leaving only about 270 there alive.

Other colonies occupy eastern marshes, but because of water diversion practices, those areas will soon be too dry for nesting. Experts believe it won't be long before all the birds die off.

The story is a bleak echo. The last U.S. bird species to become extinct was another Florida sparrow, the dusky seaside. Once thriving in wetlands near the Kennedy Space Center, the dusky was done in by overdevelopment and pesticides.

Everglades National Park is supposed to offer sanctuary from such man-made threats. Indeed, birds living within the park's vast boundaries don't see many bulldozers or crop dusters.

Water is a more inescapable presence. The stuff that could drown out the Cape Sable seaside sparrows will be pumped into the park from conservation areas to the north. Efforts to redistribute the flow more evenly will probably come too late to save the birds.

A study is being done to help decide whether all the houses and lots in the 81/2 Square Mile Area should be repurchased and returned to a natural state. In the meantime, if it comes to a policy choice between soaking a bird and soaking somebody's carpet, the birds will probably lose.

Too bad they can't learn to build their nests in taller grass.

Too bad we can't learn not to build our subdivisions in swamps.


Turtles slaying shows we need more Cousteaus June 29, 1997 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | City gives kids a great reason to give thanks November 26, 1986