Posted: 12:00 a.m. Monday, July 16, 2012
Commentary: Everglades plan promising, but where’s the money?
By Alan Farago
Special to The Palm Beach Post
Half a century ago Marjory Stoneman Douglas, founder of Friends of the Everglades, was fiercely skeptical of governmental efforts to restore the fading River of Grass without ironclad assurances to reverse harm from misguided engineering and agricultural policies. The new $880 million plan to treat polluted water dumped by Big Sugar into the Everglades is the result of a federal lawsuit by Friends of the Everglades and the Miccosukee Tribe. It is a step in the right direction, but it lacks funding guarantees for construction and it is virtually unenforceable due to huge loopholes.
In 2004, Friends sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Aagency for its long-standing failure to enforce clean water standards against sugar industry polluters who were in clear violation of the 1992 Everglades Forever Act. The Act provides for a strict phosphorus limit of 10 parts per billion for water in the Everglades. Scientists universally agreed that phosphorus – a common component of fertilizers used by Big Sugar — was harming the River of Grass.
U.S. District Judge Alan Gold agreed that the EPA and the state of Florida had been derelict in enforcing clean water standards. Finally, more than four years after Judge Gold’s first ruling and with the threat of contempt sanctions looming, a Gov. Scott’s administration has offered a plan with the approval of EPA to resolve the Friends’ Clean Water Act lawsuit.
The plan, which Judge Gold aproved last week, falls short of what EPA believed was necessary to meet Everglades’ pollution goals — $880 million vs. $1.5 billion for a series of new shallow marshes to treat Big Sugar’s chemical pollution. Judge Gold isolates two critical issues: how will the plan be funded and is it enforceable?
We are encouraged that the state has at least come forward with a plan to address Everglades water quality problems; not just on the Friends litigation, but through a serious effort to fix water quality problems in other parts of the Everglades. On the other hand, Friends doubts the state, the South Florida Water Management District and, particularly, the Legislature are truly committed to providing the necessary money.
History shows that all three entities have repeatedly thwarted efforts to save the River of Grass from destruction by Big Sugar and others. Can we trust the state, given that it still is locked in a congressional battle to eliminate federal Clean Water Act standards in Florida and, once again, supports back-pumping chemically-polluted water from sugar fields into Lake Okeechobee: a dismal practice that Friends fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court?
Moreover, the Legislature has failed to repeal the 2003 legislation amending the Everglades Forever Act, passed under Gov. Bush, that bypasses earlier commitments and permits another decade of harmful Everglades pollution.
Friends of the Everglades will stay the course. We are reminded how President Reagan described the process of standing down the nuclear arms race: trust, but verify. If we can’t verify, we wonder what the future holds.
Floridians have many reasons to mistrust the motives and purposes of the Legislature and governing boards of the state water management districts. So far, what the state and EPA propose is a step in the right direction but lacks the iron clad commitments that Marjory Stoneman Douglas fought for and that our organization is determined to achieve for Florida and the nation’s interest in the Everglades.
Alan Farago, a writer and environmentalist, is president of Friends of the Everglades.