Everglades stagnation

Palm Beach Post Editorial

November 30, 2007


Blame President Bush and years of an uncooperative Congress. Everglades restoration is at a standstill, ready to become the centerpiece of the president's harmful environmental legacy.

President Bush was there for the grip-and-grin photos when brother Jeb was running for governor, promising full federal cooperation. But from the start, the federal government has failed to do its part in what was supposed to be a 50-50 restoration partnership. The president's staff and then-Gov. Bush dealt harshly with both champions and critics of the restoration.

In 2001, then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton closed a West Palm Beach restoration office and reassigned Michael Davis, who had helped create the bipartisan plan to fix the Everglades. In 2003, the South Florida Water Management District demoted chief environmental scientist Lou Toth, who told The Washington Post that the restoration plan relies too heavily on engineering, rather than natural solutions. This month, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official who heads the EPA's South Florida office, Richard Harvey, was removed from the Everglades project after he voiced concerns about a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to send Lake Okeechobee's polluted waters into Biscayne National Park. Other experts also have been dumped from the restoration project.

There are more problems. Congress finally passed the first Water Resources bill in seven years, authorizing money for two major Everglades projects, the Indian River Lagoon restoration and Picayune Strand. But authorization is not appropriation, and actually getting Congress to provide cash could take another two years.

The good news, water district Director Carol Wehle said, is that the state stepped into the void the feds left. The state bought land and accelerated design and construction of projects. Now, the state is ready to start building, but it needs money. Will the federal government ever provide its fair share? Ms. Wehle said the state might have to start asking where it will find new sources of money, beyond ad valorem taxes, if it can't rely on the feds.

In addition, the corps still is testing aquifer storage and recovery wells, once envisioned as a vital part of restoration, with plans for more than 300 wells to store excess water around Lake Okeechobee. Now, the state has a new plan for holding water on public and private lands north of the lake if studies show the wells are too expensive or ineffective.

Water district board Chairman Eric Buermann told The Associated Press that he wonders whether Everglades restoration "ever will be done." It's a valid concern - and one that probably won't have a satisfactory answer until Mr. Bush is out of office and a more cooperative staff and Congress are in place.