Heaven and Hell in the Everglades

Clunk. That was the sound last week when a report on the Everglades by the National Research Council (NRC) hit the desk of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Of course, I’ve never seen the governor’s desk. I write from the other side of the castle keep and pole axes, outside the moat.

But I have good company in the dreaming department.

Reports that the governor’s office dismissed recommendations of the nation’s top science advisers don’t fit reality, either.

The NRC bases its work on empirical evidence, a good thing, because if it were left to the state, Re-Engineering Water Storage in the Everglades: Risks and Opportunities would never have seen the light of day.

The NRC concludes the most urgent task of that contingency plan is to protect sufficient lands from irreversible development now.

Its key point is that options for water storage — mainly the multibillion-dollar gamble on aquifer storage and recovery wells (ASR) — are so rife with uncertainty that there is an immediate need for government to regroup around the single option we know works: more wetlands, on the order of several hundred thousand acres.

The NRC slices and dices ASR a thousand ways, but it still comes a cropper.

ASR represents nearly three-quarters of the new water promised from the Everglades restoration project, but it will take a decade or more to know whether ASR will even work. In the meantime, the only feasible contingency, using the sugar fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area for surface water storage, could be lost — I note, will be lost — to bulldozers, builder associations and campaign contributions.

I mean, this is Florida, right? And sugar is the equal opportunity exploiter of political parties par excellence.

So, instead of tearing my hair out — I actually don’t have much hair left to tear out — I am going to put in plain view some stuff the NRC won’t touch with a 10-foot pole.

Sugar will never have better friends in the White House or Congress or in the Florida Legislature.

But the Republican majority can’t support corporate welfare for the nation’s richest farmers forever.

With new federal dietary guidelines highlighting the fat role sugar plays in unhealthy lives, with Castro falling down steps and giving lift to dreams of soon growing sugar where the federal Environmental Protection Agency or county commission does not roost, sugar knows that change is on the way.

How smart is sugar? It foisted on taxpayers an expanding share of costs to clean up its pollution of the Everglades. It manipulated U.S. farm policy to keep the lid on impoverished Caribbean nations that produce sugar at a far lower cost. It dropped lawsuits like tips at a capitol bar.

Luck is way blinder than justice.

Give credit to the Federal Reserve and years of low interest rates that turned land where owners had grown wealthy into the hottest speculative real-estate market in the world. And sugar didn’t lift a finger to do it.

So what do you do when you are holding the only trifecta ticket in town? You cash in.

But here is the catch: The instant the first permit to convert sugar land in the EAA to housing tracts is approved, any leverage by the government and any hope for the Everglades is lost. Forever.

Doesn’t matter how sugar dresses up its first permit application — what glitter and sequins are sown on its sleeves — the Everglades gets saved one way only: if the future of the entire Everglades Agricultural Area is dealt with, as a whole, right now.

Does Bush have the constitution to stand up to sugar? Does he have the guts to bond out the purchase of EAA lands above and beyond the largest state land-buying program in the nation? Will his administration refuse to approve any development permits until a fully funded plan is in place to buy out property owners and create the surface water storage equivalent to what is dreamt in the idiotic plan to drill out Florida’s aquifers?

None of these questions is raised in the NRC report, of course.

But the NRC does note that in the early 1990s, the annual value of crops grown in the EAA was in the neighborhood of $640 million. Put that number next to the $12 billion U.S. taxpayers are forking over to fund a restoration plan that is designed to save a crop that is uneconomic and unsustainable and whose political blowback has done more harm to common sense than it has to all to all the birds that once existed in the Everglades.

So there you have it, that clunk the NRC report made on the desk of Bush ripped straight through taxpayer pockets.

Chances are if the governor ignores the NRC report, Everglades restoration will turn into the most innovative scheme for profiteering since buccaneers in the Florida Keys lured shipwrecks to the reef by setting out lights on the shoals to convey a safe way home.

On the other hand, if Bush carefully reads the NRC report and acts according to empirical evidence, he will earn more kudos, medals and parades than science can account for.

But there is no in-between in the heaven and hell of the Everglades.

From the angels in heaven, there will only be jeers if piecemeal permitting of the Everglades Agricultural Area is allowed to occur.

ALAN FARAGO, a writer on the environment and politics, can be reached at alanfarago@yahoo.com.

He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel. The NRC report is available online at http://www.nationalacademies.

Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net