Many rivers to cross

Could Everglades restoration be an issue in the 2012 presidential election?

Brian Call

Cuts not only affect Everglades restoration; they also reduce funds for flood protection.

"Almost 100 years ago, the 'River of Grass' was drained and diked to make way for cities and farms. Experience has shown us that those cities and farms will not survive if the Everglades is not restored ..." Gov. Lawton Chiles, Jan. 13, 1994

Earlier this week, advocates for the Everglades placed an ad in the Washington Post and two other D.C. political journals, calling on President Obama to lead a coordinated restoration strategy. According to Politico, supporters say that the huge project offers the president a "rare chance" to achieve a bipartisan agreement about the environment that's simply not possible with climate change or offshore drilling.

In the last few decades of the 20th century, the Everglades in South Florida were slowly dying due to an intrusion of farms and development. Dams and canals had drained much of the swamp and polluted it with fertilizers and urban runoff.

That was supposed to change in 2000, when President Clinton signed into law the Everglades Restoration Act. The 50-50 cost-sharing agreement between Florida and the feds pledged to revive millions of acres of sawgrass prairies, mangrove and cypress swamps, hardwood hammocks, and coral reefs.

But restoration hasn't exactly gone according to plan, and late last month a federal judge blasted the state for failing to protect the water quality of the marshes.

In his Omnibus Order, Federal Judge Alan Gold wrote that nutrient contamination in the Everglades was an enormous problem, and that Florida had failed to meet even federal minimums of water quality standards under the Clean Water Act. "Notwithstanding protests to the contrary," he wrote, "[state officials] have not been true stewards of protecting the Everglades in recent years."

Gold acknowledged that there have been significant economic problems in Florida. But in his eyes that does not excuse the continued destruction of the million-and-a-half acres of subtropical wilderness that are the Everglades.

The Everglades receives annual funding in three ways: from the state legislature, from a (theoretical) matching federal grant, and from property taxes collected in the 16 counties that make up the South Florida Water Management District.

Last week the House and Senate agreed to authorize $29.5 million for Everglades restoration. That's down from the $50 million it's received each of the past three years — and from the $200 million it received annually back in the last years of the Jeb Bush administration. But at least it's much better than the budget Rick Scott had proposed — $17 million.

But Everglades funding was really hurt by the 25 percent hit that Scott ordered for all five water districts in the state (the South West Florida Management District encompasses all Bay area counties). That's a $120 million reduction.

Kirk Fordham, the CEO of the Everglades Foundation, calls the cut "draconian," since the hit not only affects the Everglades restoration, but also reduces funds for flood protection in the advent of hurricanes hitting the South Florida region. And that's on top of the reduction in property values that has affected that revenue stream in recent years.

Environmental protection was one of the biggest losers in the new state budget. Funding was zeroed out for the state's largest land acquisition program, Florida Forever. Legislators also repealed the 1985 Growth Management Act, which eliminates concurrency in dense urban areas — the requirement that developers pay for road improvements when their projects increase traffic.

Taken from that perspective, the Everglades cut is shocking only when you measure it by what the 'Glades used to receive from the Legislature.

The $7.8 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan signed in 2000 was aimed at returning a natural flow of water to the Everglades. At the time, over 70 percent of its historic flows had been diverted to supply water to farms and communities, and roughly half of its acreage had been lost to agriculture and development. Complete restoration was expected to take 10 to 20 more years. But those costs have increased to approximately $15 billion.

Kirk Fordham says there's long been a bipartisan commitment to Everglades restoration and protection, referencing Bob Graham, Connie Mack, George LeMieux and Bill Nelson among the Republicans and Democrats who've supported such programs. But he says in the past year or two, "There's been a frenzy to completely deregulate or dismantle our environmental protection laws, in favor of promoting home construction." Fordham says he doesn't buy "the myth," as he calls it, that Florida's economy tanked in the past three years because of restrictions on homebuilding and construction.

Why is it important to restore the Everglades to their previous heights?

Officials say that enhanced freshwater will protect the region's water supply, allow for native wildlife populations to flourish, and lead to increased availability for recreation.

But Fordham and friends say that Everglades restoration will ultimately not only boost the water quality for the entire state, but also get Floridians back to work, as Rick Scott is so fond of saying.

They tout a study conducted by Mather Economics that contends that restoration will produce more than 440,000 jobs in the decades to come. They also cite a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimate that an additional 22,000 jobs will be created for restoration construction work.

But not only have funding issues slowed the restoration, there have been other bumps on the road as well.

Environmentalists sued the EPA over the state cleanup plan in part because it pushed back to 2016 what had been a 2006 deadline for reducing damaging levels of phosphorus, a fertilizer ingredient that flows off farms and yards.

And then there was the disappointing aftermath of former Governor Charlie Crist's dramatic announcement of a deal with U.S. Sugar.

That move in June of 2008 — $1.75 billion to purchase 187,000 acres of land — thrilled environmentalists, excited about the prospect of sugar cane moving out of the way for Everglades restoration. But since that time, the water district has had to downsize the land deal twice, due to declining tax revenues. The final deal calls for the South Florida Water Management District to buy 26,800 acres for $197 million.

Critics such as U.S. Sugar's rival, Florida Crystals, along with the Miccosukee Tribe, are still waging a legal fight to try to derail the land deal. They contend that the deal is too costly for taxpayers and takes money away from other Everglades restoration projects.

Until then, Floridians can still enjoy airboating and swamp buggying in one of the country's biggest national parks. And perhaps, its supporters hope, President Obama will see Everglades restoration as a way to restore his chances of re-election in the must-win state of Florida.

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