Can the Everglades be Fixed?

Water moves to money the way hips sway to salsa. But taxpayers had something more serious in mind when they agreed to invest more than $10 billion to restore America’s Everglades. The likelihood is — absent immediate action by elected officials — that pile of money will wash away like storm water down a drain.

Here is a brief explanation why.

The plan to fix what is left of the Everglades is like a bicycle. The frame is the “comprehensive” plan to restore the Everglades. The wheels are supported by spokes: nearly 70 separately funded projects. Doesn’t matter how tough the spokes are. If the wheels can’t stand the weight, the machine will fail.

The wheels of Everglades restoration are made of cardboard: $3 billion worth of wells that agencies plan to drill into Florida’s aquifers to store “excess” rainwater for later retrieval as a substitute for wetlands.

Today, individual projects are moving forward. But progress is only the making of the spokes. The spoke makers — private consultants and engineering companies — are happy.

But the fact is, government agencies are “studying” aquifer storage and recovery through “pilot” wells. Beware of engineers studying the suitability of cardboard for bicycle wheels. That bike will not ride.

There is only one alternative to save the Everglades, but by the time government bureaucrats get around to saying so, the opportunity may be gone. Once new cities are planted where sugar grows, kiss the Everglades goodbye.

That day is right around the corner.

In July, the Fanjul family offered more than a thousand acres of its vast holdings to the Palm Beach County commission as a site for the Scripps Institute, in place of the controversial Mecca Farms. Scripps officials declined, edgy about the cost of cleaning Everglades muck from its boots. But the Fanjuls and their lobbyists threaten that they will build, whether they have an anchor tenant like Scripps or not.

Other sugar growers and rock-mining interests, sometimes one and the same, have recently had permits approved, and cities like Wellington are delighted to push westward, just like Weston did in Broward County.

Sensible people must be driven mad. When Congress passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, signed into law by President Bill Clinton the day the Supreme Court heard the contested Florida presidential vote in 2000, mainstream environmental groups — mostly big national organizations — believed that they had secured the only deal that both Washington and Tallahassee could withstand.

Sugar supported the plan, too — whose linchpin feature, aquifer storage and recovery, was so pie-in-the-sky that the single federal agency with the most knowledge about aquifer manipulation, the U.S. Geological Survey, had not even been consulted in its drafting.

In the mid-1990s, Jack Moeller, longtime activist for the Florida Wildlife Federation and informed voice in the wilderness — participated on the Lawton Chiles-appointed Governor’s Commission for a Sustainable South Florida and repeatedly asked for Everglades restoration to include adequate surface-water storage. Not only were his requests ignored by the majority representing agriculture and development interests, today Moeller says that the minutes of the meetings when he raised these points were “filleted.”

In October 2001, a group of environmentalists from the Everglades Coalition met with Executive Director Henry Dean of the South Florida Water Management District in the aftermath of the contentious legislative session that included a measure that would have legalized injection of trace quantities of human poop into aquifers had it not been stopped by a massive, grass-roots campaign.

The environmentalists who met with Dean wanted water managers to provide an alternative to ASR wells, because of the high costs of failure. Though Dean promised an alternative plan within a six-month time frame, excuses flowing freely as water are all that materialized.

A lot of houses can materialize on 500,000 acres of the Everglades Agricultural Area if permitted. And sugar, if allowed to by government, would hold the Everglades hostage to its development plans the way it has to its pollution.

The reasonable response for government — which represents all taxpayers — is for local county commissioners to request and Gov. Jeb Bush to impose a building moratorium in the Everglades Agricultural Area until a comprehensive plan is developed and funded to replace the cardboard wheels of Everglades restoration with something that can bear the weight of taxpayer expectations.

There, that wasn’t so hard to say.

ALAN FARAGO, a longtime writer on the environment and politics, can be reached at



Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at