Taxpayers from Miami to Maui are spending billions of dollars to restore the Florida Everglades, a vibrant ecosystem critical to the nation's economy. But a report released last week by a leading environmental group shows that while farmers in South Florida are responsible for three-fourths of the pollution entering the Everglades basin, the agriculture industry pays only one-fourth of the cost for cleaning it up. The state and federal governments, which are splitting the cleanup bill, need to make the industry start paying its fair share.
The study commissioned by the Everglades Foundation found that 76 percent of all phosphorus pollution entering the basin ran off from agricultural operations such as ranches, nurseries and farms. Only 23 percent of the load came from urban sources, such as wastewater and runoff from homes. Yet farmers paid only 24 percent of the estimated $106 million per year it costs for cleanup operations; the balance was left to federal, state and local taxpayers, and in pass-through charges from industrial users.
This gross inequality is one reason the Everglades cleanup has dragged on for decades. Without a financial incentive, the agriculture industry will not act aggressively on its own to clean up the pollution flowing into the basin. It is eight times cheaper to keep fertilizer from entering the Everglades in the first place, the report found, than to come in later to clean up the water. But if farmers are not paying the bill, anyway, why would they better manage their operations on the front end?
The study highlights the urgent need for state lawmakers to implement the voters' will by fully implementing the 16-year-old "Polluter Pays" amendment. Florida voters overwhelmingly added the measure to the state Constitution in 1996 with the clear intent of forcing polluters to pay for the harm they cause. Despite nudging by the courts, the state has never acted to shift the cleanup costs back onto the industry. Failing to stand up to the deep pockets of the industry could undermine congressional support for maintaining federal involvement in the joint cleanup effort.
Florida will need the money if it seriously intends to resolve a long-standing court battle over how best and how quickly to improve water quality in the Everglades. Gov. Rick Scott is negotiating with the Environmental Protection Agency over a long-term plan to restore an ecosystem that supplies one-third of Floridians with drinking water along with thousands of jobs in the tourism and fishing industries. The issue here is not taxation — residents across the country are already shouldering the bills — but ending the sweet deal for agricultural interests that cause most of the damage. The burden on the taxpayer is nowhere close to fair.