Maxwell: Florida’s vital challenge: to save the Everglades

By AIRIE Fellow Bill Maxwell for the Tampa Bay Times

Associated Press
Associated Press

EVERGLADES NATIONAL PARK — The health of Florida’s environment never should have become a partisan issue, but we keep electing officials who make it partisan. As a result, we see the continued degradation of our water and land and serious threats to many plants and animals.

Many ecologists and other experts argue that as the health of the natural world diminishes, the quality of human life diminishes in equal measure.

In Florida, nothing epitomizes our need for vigilance and challenges our commitment to environmental stewardship more than the health of the Greater Everglades, the state’s most vital wetland ecosystem.

The Greater Everglades is not just the iconic national park near Homestead. It is the region that stretches from north of the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes south into Florida Bay. Historically, this ecosystem encompassed 18,000 square miles. Today, because of agricultural and urban development, just half of it remains. Scientists call this leftover the “remnant Everglades.”

Proposals to help restore and protect this treasure and many other sensitive places are divisive. Even in South Florida, where some 7 million residents of Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties depend on the Everglades for potable water, politicians who oppose water-related projects still get elected.

In addition to being a source of drinking water, the Everglades brings in more than $146 million in tourist and recreation spending and creates thousands of jobs annually.

To their credit, some lawmakers are working with environmentalists to make the Everglades healthy again. The major effort, the $10.5 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, began in 2000 and was to be completed in 30-plus years. That will not happen.

For a century, disastrous projects tried to control the Everglades by building levees and digging canals. Led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the replumbing south of Lake Okeechobee was to prevent flooding in residential areas and to drain the so-called swamp for agriculture, especially sugar. These actions began the slow death of the Everglades by altering the depth, timing and distribution of water flow in the ecosystem.

Engineers apparently did not know or care that the Everglades’ flora and fauna evolved and thrived on low levels of nutrients. With human encroachment, levels of nitrogen and phosphorous rose, severely damaging the ecosystem.

Scientists involved in CERP agree that high levels of phosphorous, mainly from sugar production runoff, is one of the major obstacles to restoring the Everglades. And they agree that although the sugar industry has reduced levels of phosphorous discharge in recent years, it must do much more.

But demanding more of Big Sugar can kill dreams of incumbency in Tallahassee. Only a few politicians will take the gamble. Worse, it is such a corrosive issue that few scientists will say publicly that the sugar industry is the proverbial elephant — the big polluter — in the room.

As far back as 1996, nearly 70 percent of Florida voters approved the “Polluter Pays” constitutional amendment that calls for Big Sugar to pay its fair share of the then-estimated $2 billion to clean up water in the Everglades. Evidence strongly showed that the industry produced 62 percent of the pollution. But with powerful friends in the Legislature and in select government agencies, Big Sugar has yet to pay its fair share for cleanup, saddling taxpayers with most of the tab.

A viable way to restore the Everglades emerged in 2008, when then-Gov. Charlie Crist announced that Florida intended to buy up to 187,000 acres of land from the state’s largest cane grower, U.S. Sugar Corp., for $1.75 billion. Although the deal had drawbacks, it would have given the land back to the people and let scientists implement programs that would effectively reduce levels of phosphorous flowing south.

But the recession and politics killed the deal, and the state settled for a much smaller parcel of land, too small to aid in significant cleanup.

Today, the reality of restoring the Everglades remains as it was: The state needs to buy out U.S. Sugar. Not surprisingly, the company is threatening to develop the land for housing, perhaps looking for more money than in 2008. If the state does not buy the land, a handful of noncontroversial CERP projects will remain on the fringes, doing little to clean the dirty water.

Florida’s gubernatorial election is Tuesday. There is not a proposed amendment on the ballot that specifically earmarks funds for restoring the Everglades. But there is Amendment 1, calling for land and water preservation statewide, allocating one-third of an existing tax that is already used to fund water and land protection. More state-owned land and clean water in other regions will benefit the dying Everglades.

Furthermore, Amendment 1 tests politicians’ long-term vision for the natural world. Republican Gov. Rick Scott opposes the amendment, and his first-term record on the environment lacks vision. Democrat Charlie Crist supports the amendment. He has a positive environmental record and promises to restore programs and funds Scott has gutted or eliminated.

More than ever, paradise needs a pro-environment governor, a steward, who has the courage to renew the buyout of U.S. Sugar, putting us back on course to restore the Everglades and in a position to safeguard precious land and water statewide.