WASHINGTON — Florida needs another six years and millions of dollars in new treatment facilities to clean out the pollution now flowing into the Everglades, Gov. Rick Scott told federal leaders Thursday.
The timetable may trouble environmentalists, but Scott's visit to Washington and his two-hour meeting with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other federal officials appeared to be a significant step in resolving more than two decades of legal disputes over Everglades restoration.
In their meeting Thursday, Florida officials laid out an alternative to plans ordered by a federal judge. The state's plans call for downsizing some construction projects and relying more on water storage on public and private lands.
Scott said the plan puts to use land already in public ownership so that projects can be authorized and built promptly "at a reasonable cost to the taxpayers."
"A healthy Everglades is part of a healthy economy," he said in a statement. "Yet it is also one of America's treasures. It fully deserves our best efforts to resolve differences, refocus on our goals and deliver results. This strategy can make that happen."
Officials offered few details of the meeting in Washington, saying the time the governor and the Interior secretary spent reflects the importance of the project to both the state and the federal government. They also described it as a good opportunity for the head honchos to touch base on mutual goals for Everglades restoration.
"Florida and the U.S. government regularly coordinate on these types of issues at all levels and we look forward to continuing this important partnership," said Salazar spokesman Adam Fetcher.
The state currently faces a 2016 deadline for cleaning up water flowing into the Everglades. The new 2022 deadline would require a green light from U.S. District Judge Alan Gold, who's already unhappy with the state.
Environmentalists are unhappy with the proposed extension.
"This is terrible," said David Guest of Earthjustice, one of the environmental groups that has sued the state over the Everglades.
In a ruling in April, Gold said he was tired of the state's foot-dragging approach to cleaning up the River of Grass, noting it has "not been true stewards of protecting the Everglades in recent years."
For decades, cattails have been taking over the sawgrass in the Everglades because of phosphorus, a pollutant that for decades has flowed from sugar and vegetable farms and the sprawling suburbs of South Florida.
To clean up the pollution flowing into the Everglades requires cutting the flow of phosphorus down to the point that there are only 10 parts of phosphorus per billion in the water. Anything higher will continue to slowly alter the plant and animal life in the Everglades.
Originally the state was supposed to get to that 10 ppb point by 2012, but then the Legislature pushed the deadline back to 2016. Now the state is saying it needs another six years.
To make even that deadline will require building another 22,000 acres of stormwater treatment areas — in effect, manmade wetlands — to filter the water flowing southward. State officials have no estimate as to how much that might cost, but say the average in the past — they have already built 52,000 acres of similar treatment areas — has worked out to $30,000 per acre.
In some parts of the Everglades, the water is around 15 ppb — close to the goal, Guest said. But in others it's still above 40 ppb, far from hitting the mark the state had agreed to reach, he said.
Guest called Scott's new position "a whole lot of shooting your parents and claiming you're an orphan," because the governor just imposed drastic budget cuts on the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency in charge of Everglades restoration.
He said he hoped federal officials would not agree to give Florida so much more time to achieve a goal they should have already been close to achieving. He said environmental groups and the Miccosukkee Tribe of Indians would be sure to oppose it, "but if the feds cave, it's going to be a tough row to hoe for us."
Attempts to contact the Miccosukkee's attorney and chief spokesman were unsuccessful Thursday.
A map showing the proposed treatment areas shows that the state would not build them on land purchased from U.S. Sugar, but state officials say they hope to use the U.S. Sugar property to swap it with other landowners for the property they do need.
State officials said they'll continue to work closely with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to identify projects that will treat water to ultra-low levels of phosphorus.
"We have a conceptual path forward for one of our long-standing challenges, and I am extremely optimistic that through cooperation and collaboration we will deliver measureable and permanent results," said Herschel Vinyard, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Vinyard, along with Melissa Meeker, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, joined Scott for the meeting with Salazar. The meeting also included top officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Justice Department.
It marked something of an about-face for Scott, whose had sent early signals that his administration would resist some of the environmental demands of the Everglades restoration plan. The Republican governor spent much of his campaign and the first few months in office bashing President Barack Obama.
But he's been on the charm offensive with Obama's administration recently, including reaching out to Salazar, Attorney General Eric Holder and the president's chief of staff, Bill Daley.
Times/Herald staff writers Curtis Morgan and Michael C. Bender contributed to this report.