Time Runs Out for the Everglades

by ALAN FARAGO

This has been a terrible year for the environment. In Florida, the fundamental balance has vanished that we hoped would protect the Everglades from the water demands of agriculture and Florida’s exploding population.

A 2003 review shows why those who care about the environment must direct new energy and leadership to Florida and to the nation. In Washington, key environmental laws are buckling under pressure from special interests. We conclude the fall 2004 elections are more important than any we have experienced in our lifetimes.

In 2003, Everglades restoration was dealt a crushing blow by an amendment to state law that gives the state and powerful campaign contributors a license to pollute the Everglades until at least 2016. An army of sugar lobbyists promoted the bill, nearly greater in numbers than members of the Florida Senate, in order to avoid having to do its work in a presidential election year. State newspapers were unanimous in opposing the bill, powerful members of Congress from both parties warned that it could destroy funding for Everglades restoration, and even a federal judge expressed alarm. For only expressing in print what he had said in his courtroom, the sugar industry successfully petitioned for his removal. The anti-Everglades bill had the full support of the governor and the loyalist governing board of the water management district. David Struhs, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, misled state legislators when he claimed that federal agencies supported the bad bill.

For misstating the truth, Gov. Jeb Bush should have asked for the resignation of his lieutenant. Instead of using this blatant example of moral relativism and standing up for the truth, the public bore witness to the dismissal, transfer and silencing of key staff in environmental agencies who dared to differ with a governor for whom policy is what he believes to be true, whether facts support him or not.

The silencing of critics within the Bush administration is deeply troubling in itself, and even more ominous when party loyalists are placed in charge of critical operations as at the South Florida Water Management District, where in 2003 the law firm of the former chairman of the Florida Republican Party was awarded the contract for "general counsel" — a new commercial enterprise created by "privatizing" part of the district’s internal operations.

In 2003, governor-appointed board members of the South Florida Water Management District voted to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn two lower federal court rulings in a case that holds major implications — not just for the Everglades. Friends of the Everglades and the Miccosukee Tribe, supported by an amicus brief by Earthjustice on behalf of other environmental groups, assert that a federal permit is required if the district allows polluted urban water to be spewed into federally protected lands.

This vital issue illustrates how government policy in 2003 had both specific impacts to the prospects for restoration and impacts on national environmental policy — a kind of thudding echo heard around the world. In defying the need for federal permits, the Everglades became the launchpad for the Bush administrations to attack one of the cornerstone laws protecting the environment, the Clean Water Act. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear this important case in January.

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan passed with bipartisan support in Congress in 2000 and envisioned returning the Everglades to as close an approximation as possible of its condition prior to disturbance. The details were left to be worked out in regulations required in 2002. It was left up to these regulations to determine how — and to what extent — the multibillion-dollar slate of water-management projects would restore the Everglades. The regulations were also to safeguard the nation’s most revered wetland from the grip of Florida’s developers, who are clamoring to turn the historic public-works program into the biggest water-supply project in the nation’s history.

Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finally issued the regulations. It was hardly worth the wait. The Corps Programmatic Regulations, supported by the state, mask a calibrated assault on the principle of restoration as the first priority of the $8 billion investment by the state and federal government.

The regulations left out the required details and safeguards, including ignoring Congress’ specific directive to provide identifiable measuring points for restoration progress. Even more significantly, the regulations actually elevated the creation of water supply for more urban sprawl to equal priority to restoring the Everglades. The regulations also guarantee that, when agencies fail in their mission, no one will be held accountable and that restoration initiatives in other parts of the nation will be seriously compromised by the results in Florida.

In 2003, the mismanagement of Lake Okeechobee to benefit polluting industries wreaked havoc through the lake itself and through important estuaries. Land speculation ran rampant, with the state agreeing to pay stratospheric prices for properties needed to restore the Everglades. The current leadership in Tallahassee continues to fail to enact the "polluter pays" amendment to the Florida Constitution passed overwhelming by Florida voters in 1996. State funds to acquire environmental lands have been diverted. "Public participation" in matters relating to environmental policy is an outright sham.

Also in 2003, an influential business group, headed up by the chief Republican fund-raiser in Florida, proposed to treat North Florida waters as a private commodity to be captured and shipped to distant boomtowns in South Florida. The contrived focus on water supply continues to obscure the massive problem of wastewater management in the state.

In 2003, Bush and Struhs rebuffed environmentalists’ request to advise the public about the state’s "dirty secret": that 1 billion gallons per day of scarcely treated municipal wastewater is injected through wells into future sources of drinking water supply across the state — and in some areas, the wells are failing and effluent is leaking upward, in plain violation of federal law.

The gaping hole in the governor’s agenda is the failure to contain urban sprawl. In 2003, historically low mortgage rates and compliant state government helped to fuel sprawl, destroying wetlands and foreclosing restoration opportunities.

The failure of the state to plan for sprawl creeping toward the Everglades Agricultural Area, where sugar is grown, is an enormous impediment to timely and cost-efficient restoration, which will depend — not on risky technologies like aquifer storage and recovery wells that only engineering companies believe will work — but on significant additional surface water storage. The imminent arrival of condo farms in the Everglades Agricultural Area — the "exit strategy" for Big Sugar — will be facilitated by a new law Gov. Bush supported in 2002 that diminishes citizen standing in challenging bad development decisions by the state or local authorities.

The record of 2003 and the Everglades is clear: It shows a radical agenda seeking to cripple the role of government in protecting public health and the environment using grand-sounding accomplishments, like "Healthy Forests" or "Clean Skies" and "Everglades Restoration."

For qualities of leadership, consider the example of a very different Republican president, one for whom conservation meant action, not deception. Teddy Roosevelt urged Americans to conserve resources not merely for people then alive, but for "the number within the womb of time, compared to which, those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to unborn generations, bids us restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations."

The Bush administration defends its misdirection of Everglades policy, claiming progress in the investment and commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars for planning, infrastructure and land acquisition. But statistics obscure the facts of policy determined by industry, government agencies intimidated by a sibling relationship, and a governor who culls from his ranks any hint of dissent from experts who know the truth.

In her 1947 classic The River of Grass, Marjory Stoneman Douglas held out hope for the wildness of the Everglades: "Perhaps even in this last hour the vast magnificent, subtle and unique region of the Everglades may not be utterly lost." We have run out of time.

We conclude that the elections in the fall of 2004 are more important, more vital, than any we have experienced in our lifetimes. If you care about the environment and America’s Everglades, become involved today. Listen to all sides; learn. We believe that without new leadership, there will be little left to show of America’s Everglades, our clean air and clean water and our wilderness; gifts bestowed on us by past generations for safekeeping of "those still within the womb of time."

ALAN FARAGO is a writer, consultant and Everglades Chair for the Sierra Club Florida Chapter. This article originally appeared in the Orlando Sentinal.

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