"To understand Lake Okeechobee, son, you've got to understand the Everglades, for by nature and geography they must always go together, just like eggs must go with grits." "A Cracker History of Okeechobee," by Lawrence E. Will

William Rudd was 7 years old when his daddy moved the family to Lake Okeechobee. It was 1911, a decade before any road or railway would penetrate this wild and soggy heart of Florida. Indians still paddled dugout canoes. Outlaws used the dense shoreline for refuge and the plug-ugly, sweet-tasting catfish was king.

"Most everyone came here for the catfish," said Rudd, now 79 years old with white, crewcut hair and a bronchial mister he inhales between cigarettes. "There were so many catfish, we wouldn't even go to catching them until the day the pickup boat was to come."

There are still catfish in this 730-square-mile lake--and people who make their living catching them. Among them is Rudd's 49-year-old son Jerry, who uses huge seine nets that are much the same as those used by his father and grandfather. But where 100 boats once worked, there are now only a half-dozen, and they are allowed to fish only a small portion of the lake.

The whiskered fish, which spawned frontier towns to rival any the Wild West could boast, has lost both its status and water rights to a new Florida land rush. And Okeechobee, which was so remote that white explorers couldn't find it for 400 years, has been dammed, diked and tamed.

Water that used to regularly overflow the lake's southern rim and seep into 7 million acres of Everglades is now rerouted through 1,400 miles of ditches and canals to sugar cane fields, vegetable farms and toilets of 4 million people who have crowded South Florida's Gulf and Atlantic coasts. Tennis courts and retirement villages now sit on drained wetlands where alligators once ate otters.

In less than half a century, Florida and the Army Corps of Engineers have radically reengineered a water system that took 400,000 years to evolve. The main problem with the modern system, say critics, is that it has killed wildlife, threatens the existence of the Everglades and plain doesn't work.

"If we don't act promptly and wisely, we'll have a dried-up mud flat on our hands," said Conrad Wirth, the former director of the National Park Service. He said that in 1967. Things have gotten worse. Just recently, Nathaniel Reed, the former assistant secretary of the Interior, warned that the Everglades was "on the brink of death."

Explore the 1.2-million-acre Everglades National Park and those doomsday reports seem exaggerated. There is an astonishing variety of wildlife here, from red fox and white-tailed deer to egrets, osprey and bald eagles.

It's what you don't see, however, that worries park biologists like Jim Kushlan. During the last 40 years, he reports, the population of freshwater wading birds has declined by 90 percent. Certain fish stocks have been decimated. And glades land has been destroyed by fires that in times past would have burned sawgrass just to the waterline. Now these fires, which burn five miles wide, are consuming the earth itself.

The Sunshine State is suffering from a chronic case of sunburn. The phenomenal urban growth in Florida since the end of World War II, coupled with severe periods of drought, has strained South Florida's water system to the limit and made rationing almost a way of life.

Arthur Marshall, 64, a Florida ecologist and former state administrator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, thinks the state has brought the water crisis upon itself. Draining swamp land and rerouting Okeechobee's water flow, said Marshall, has broken Florida's natural "rain machine."

Marshall argues that the slow-moving sheets of water, 50 miles wide in places, that once flowed from the Kissimmee River and valley into Okeechobee and then down through the Everglades are essential to the cycle. The summer sun would send water vapor into morning clouds that would redistribute the water as rain elsewhere in the state in the afternoon.

With that sheet water channeled into narrow ditches and canals, said Marshall, the whole system has dried up. And he has rain tables from the beginning of the century that seem to support his thesis.

Marshall also has a strong, and at first glance, seemingly unlikely coalition of supporters, from conservationists like Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the 92-year-old author of the most famous book on the Everglades, "Sea of Grass," to rednecked glades hunters. On this issue at least, birdwatchers and bird shooters are marching arm in arm.

"There isn't but one way to fix it. Put it back the way the good Lord made it," said Johnny Jones, 50, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, an organization of 45,000 hunters and fishermen in the state.

But filling in the canals and reflooding the land would be even more difficult than it sounds. There are now 75,000 people and 500,000 acres of agricultural lands in the drained area between Okeechobee's southern rim and the beginning of Everglades sawgrass country.

"We've got to have sugar and we've got to have cattle," said Sam Griffin, who was born 46 years ago on a houseboat on Lake Okeechobee. Griffin has worked as a commercial fisherman and as a sport fishing guide on the lake. He is now a member of both the Glades County Board of Supervisors and a regional planning commission.

"I try to speak for the fish," said Griffin, a tall, likable man who sees the lake's problems from everyone's perspective. What he can't see is any easy solutions. "I don't know what the answer is. But things can't go on like they have been much longer."

While the water rises and falls and the controversy rages, old-timers like William Rudd sit beside the lake watching the bright bass boats that have replaced the cat-fishing rigs and tell stories of storms, giant catfish and outlaws long gone.

"A man lives a lifetime and learns," said Rudd, as lightning flashed over the lake. "Then he dies and forgets it all."