Thursday, February 18, 2016

On Florida's water crisis, pick your poison: federal or state government ... by gimleteye

The struggle to protect the nation's air and water has been going on for as long as the federal interest expressed itself in the early 1970's through fundamental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act. Since that time the big gears of government -- optimistically framed as a balance between the environment and economic interests -- have been fined tuned with the creation of subsidiary rules and regulations meant to protect public health and welfare. Environmental protection laws are like a very complex and expensive mechanical watch, designed to tell the right time at the right time of day.

The big problem with protecting the environment -- take the climate, for example -- is that our capacity to understand nature requires a humility and a capacity to subjugate greed to the laws of nature. We invented all kinds of rationales and justifications to allow corporations and the jobs they encompass to avoid what is called "full cost accounting"; ie., to assess all the costs, overt and hidden, of pollution when and where those costs are incurred.

The state of Florida, essentially a peninsula of the continental United States, is a blazing advertisement for how the wrist watch and its gears and levers utterly fails to get the time or day right. Special interests, like Big Sugar, and citizens, like those desperate to protect Florida's polluted rivers, bays, and estuaries, are engaged in a parallel ballet. At least in the mainstream media, it is all confusion and the manifestation of laws of unintended consequences.

Republicans have controlled the Florida legislature and executive branch for nearly twenty years. During this time, the tension between federal and state authority has drawn tight as a drum over the fate of Florida's water resources. Unsurprisingly, this tension has expressed itself through lawsuits by environmentalists (full disclosure: as board president of Friends of the Everglades, I am deeply involved in one such federal claim against the back pumping of Big Sugar's pollution into Lake Okeechobee. The practice of shifting polluted water from one water body, i.e. canals, to another, the Lake, is an essential gear in Big Sugar's profit model.) heard from federal district courts, to the US Supreme Court, back to federal appellate courts.

During these two decades, the GOP has sharpened its focus against federal authority for protecting water quality, claiming "government over-reach" and inefficiencies that can only be cured by the state. Backed by big corporations and their trade associations like the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the pressure against federal authority has been so extreme, that the intent and purpose of federal authority, expressed through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has withered along the following line: if it can't be destroyed from outside, it will be destroyed from within. Practically speaking, this manifests as a constant war inside federal agencies between mid-level political appointees and career staff, including professional experts and scientists.

The arrangements -- the wrist watch that never tell the right day or time -- operate far below the consciousness of ordinary Americans until there is a crisis that affects everyone, like the historical January rainfall in south Florida; five times the normal average. Then all hell breaks loose because systems contain average events; they are not designed to manage contingencies of extreme events. The truth in Florida is that application of environmental rules and regulations to even average events has broken down under pressure of special interests and, over time, hundreds of millions of lobbying and influence peddling.

I could go on, but there is a single contrast that explains this panoramic view of political dysfunction over environmental regulation. The first piece of evidence is the secretive collaboration of state and federal agencies to speed through a measure to send polluted water from Lake Okeechobee south into the Everglades. It happened with the speed that deeply pleased Gov. Rick Scott, one of the leaders of the movement to eviscerate federal authority for environmental protect. If you have the interest, you can read about that collaboration here, in details released by the US Army Corps of Engineers, yesterday:

The second piece of evidence is a plan called the Central Everglades Planning Project, or, CEPP: The Everglades Foundation writes:
The Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) is the first step towards making the present-day Everglades work more like it used to, bring environmental benefits to the St. Lucie River, the Caloosahatchee River, Everglades National Park, and Florida Bay.

The project works by taking water that today would be discharged to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers and their estuaries, where it does massive damage, and sending that water southward to the Everglades, where it sustains the natural system. Before this water arrives in the Everglades, it must be cleaned up, as decades of unchecked nutrient pollution has left Lake Okeechobee waters seriously polluted. After the water is cleaned, the dams in the Everglades are modified or removed to allow the water to flow across the surface in a broad, shallow sheet, as it once did historically. The water arrives in Florida Bay when it’s needed, late in the dry season, nourishing the bay and sustaining the delicate balance of salt water and freshwater.

CEPP is a big step in the right direction for America’s Everglades, but it is not the last step.

Much more water still needs to flow south; the Everglades need more water and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers need additional relief. CEPP is the first restoration project that can be implemented now to yield improvements on a regional scale.

CEPP was designed as a state/ federal initiative in 2011, but unlike the emergency response to citizen unrest with a tsunami of pollution coursing through the heart of the state to both Florida coasts, CEPP became mired in political gamesmanship, ultimately blocked by inertia of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The editorial board of the Palm Beach Post noted on February 11, "Sadly, as a result of poor timing and Congressional lethargy, the project has been strangled by government red tape. CEPP was intended as an integral part of the Comprehensive Water Resources Reform and Development Act passed in 2014, but it failed to receive the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' approval in time for the adoption of the act."

What the editorial board fails to capture is that the special interests -- Big Sugar -- who have captured the regulatory processes at both state and federal levels did not want CEPP to be approved because it moved environmental protection measures closer to the use of additional sugar cane lands to marshes that will be used, at a vast scale, to clean and treat its own garbage; ie. badly polluted farm run-off. On the other hand, the emergency releases of hundreds of billions of gallons per day from Lake Okeechobee are being shunted around Big Sugar towards the Everglades. In fact, Big Sugar is the ONLY entity that is not paying a severe price for the mismanagement of Florida's environment and quality of life.

The reason the Florida GOP wants the federal government and agencies like the Corps out of management of water quality is simple: special interests like Big Sugar don't want a federal intermediary in promoting whatever measures are necessary to its maximum profit model. It would all be so much simpler if protecting the environment were a business in which they are the majority shareholders and the only shareholders who get to vote. That would make the public, Class "C" shareholders, which is -- staring at the results in Florida of decades of environmental mismanagement -- essentially what the public already is.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I believe you are right on the money. Keep up the great investigative work. Let's , somehow, get the NY Times and Miami Herald to add more of this. What are they afraid of?