Florida was one of our nation's last frontiers. As recently as the early 1900s, the southern interior was a vast and foreboding swampland, largely inaccessible. Efforts to tame the watery landscape took many twists and turns, guided by the needs and capabilities of the day. Waterways were the highways for the earliest inhabitants, and community growth was slow. The state's population in 1920 was 970,000. After a series of severe and damaging hurricanes in 1926 and 1928 hit the small, scattered communities clustered along the coast and near Lake Okeechobee, the need for drainage and flood control to protect human lives and livelihoods was clear. Construction on a dike around Lake Okeechobee began, as did improvements to existing waterways connecting to the east and west coast.
The first drainage and navigation improvements began in the early 1930s, but efforts were slowed significantly by the Depression and by long cycles of drought broken by hurricanes.
By the 1940s, the growth boom had begun anew, especially along the east coast and Lake Okeechobee. The state’s population in 1940 reached 2.9 million. In 1947, after years of drought, the state was deluged by rainfall averaging 100 inches along the lower east coast, almost twice the norm. Much of the ground was saturated when two hurricanes hit the state late in the year, and flooding throughout the region was devastating. Florida asked the federal government for a master plan to tame nature’s excesses. In 1948, the U.S. Congress adopted legislation creating the Central and Southern Florida (C&SF) Project, the largest civil works project in the country. Construction began the next year and continued over 20 years as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the massive flood control plumbing system stretching from just south of Orlando to Florida Bay.
In 1949, the Florida Legislature created the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District, the predecessor to the South Florida Water Management District, to manage the C&SF Project. In 1972, with the Florida Water Resources Act (Chapter 373), the state created five water management districts, with expanded responsibilities for regional water resource management and environmental protection. Today, the South Florida Water Management District is the oldest and largest of the state’s five water management districts.