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The Everglades: a Capitol crime

The Everglades is in danger again. This time it is not from a drought, hurricane or other act of nature. It is not from some imminent encroaching development. • It is from the 2011 Florida Legislature and its cascade of damaging legislation, which threatens to bring the three-decade-long effort to save the Everglades to a halt. • Everglades restoration is not just a matter of saving one of Earth's most important and unique environments and protecting the fresh water supply for a third of Florida's residents. Everglades restoration is our state's largest job and economic development program. A 2011 report by Mather Economics to the Everglades Foundation estimated that investing $11.5 billion in Everglades restoration (equally divided between the federal government and the state of Florida) would result in $46.5 billion in gains to Florida's economy and create more than 440,000 jobs in the next 50 years.

Among the most important chapters in the salvation of the Everglades occurred in 2000 when the people of America and Florida were betrothed in an engagement to collaborate on the multiyear, multibillion-dollar Everglades restoration program.

While progress toward the goal has been delayed due to funding shortfalls — to date primarily by the federal partner — and occasional vacillations in the specific steps necessary to accomplish the objective, many positive things have happened. Highly visible is the commencement of restoration of natural water flow into Everglades National Park through the now under way replacement of a portion of the Tamiami Trail earthen dike with 6½ miles of bridges. More fundamentally, the 2000 America-Florida engagement is the only initiative that has a chance of rescuing this world treasure from destruction before it is too late.

Precisely what did the Legislature do last spring?

The South Florida Water Management District is the agency charged with representing the state's interest in Everglades restoration. It has demonstrated the technical and managerial competence to fulfill its part of the marriage. The district and its predecessor agency have had strong public and bipartisan political support since their creation in 1948.

In 60 days the last Legislature virtually emasculated the 60-year-old water district.

Funding for 2011-12 was cut 48.3 percent — $519.6 million. Within less than three years, the $400 million fund established primarily to finance the state's share of Everglades land acquisition and restoration will be exhausted, with no prospects for replenishment.

The professional staff necessary to maintain the confidence of our federal spouse was eviscerated; 343 positions — men and women who had served the district in its Everglades and other water management functions critical to the southern region of Florida — were eliminated.

For nearly 40 years the state has annually augmented funding of the water district — such as the state's share of the critical northwest corner of the Everglades, the Big Cypress Preserve. Since 2000 state funds were provided through a land acquisition bonding program, Florida Forever. Forever ended this spring. In 2011 Florida Forever funds were totally eliminated.

Since its establishment, the water district and its four sister agencies throughout the state have been managed by citizen boards appointed by the governor. This citizen-led water basin and science-centric system was dramatically altered last spring. For the first time the Legislature granted itself the power to micromanage the budgets of the districts. This injection of partisan politics into water management decisionmaking will be especially disruptive because Everglades restoration has and will require multiyear plans, funding and commitment. Annual legislative approval will make those impossible. Will this not look to the federal government as a trial separation pending final divorce?

Proposals for the future are more ominous. Ten years ago there was an initiative by an affiliate of the disgraced Enron Corp. to abandon Florida's tradition of recognizing water as a crucial public resource to be managed for all the people of Florida and instead treat it as a commodity owned by private interests. The then leaders of the state were wise and rejected this swindle; however, it is now re-surfacing. Some are suggesting the purpose of the alterations made by the 2011 Legislature was to set the table for privatization of Florida's water. You can imagine how well the water-dependent natural system of the Everglades would fare if it had to bid for privately owned water in competition with commercial users.

Into this gloomy picture there has now come a ray of light. Gov. Rick Scott, speaking last month to the Everglades Foundation, said, "My administration is absolutely focused on making sure the right thing happens with the Everglades."

To realize this commitment, the governor must erect an iron curtain of opposition to privatization and any other future degradation in the state's ability to continue the marriage with Washington for Everglades restoration. Beyond that, in the election year of 2012 the Legislature should respond to the desire of the great majority of Floridians, who support Everglades restoration, and begin rolling back the mistakes of 2011.

Talking the talk is ingratiating; walking the walk can save the marriage and the Everglades.

Bob Graham, who served as Florida's governor and U.S. senator, is a charter member and founder of the Florida Conservation Coalition.

The Everglades: a Capitol crime 11/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2011 5:23pm]
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