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Critics help shape new Everglades plan

Published Sep. 29, 2005

But dissatisfaction remains with the proposal to both restore the system and meet regional water needs.

Nearly five months ago, Vice President Al Gore flew to West Palm Beach to trumpet the release of a multibillion-dollar plan to restore the Everglades to a scaled-down version of its old self while providing enough water for booming South Florida to drink, bathe and sprinkle the lawn.

Although Gore and others from across the political spectrum hailed the 3,500-page plan as ambitious and aggressive, it drew criticism from some environmentalists, scientists and farmers.

On Wednesday, with a lot less fanfare, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will unveil the latest version of the $7.8-billion plan _ a version reshaped by the fire of controversy into something more to the liking of its critics.

"Clearly the Corps of Engineers is making the right noises," said Stuart Pimm, one of five scientists who signed a letter criticizing the plan. "And clearly they're making steps in the right direction."

The new version, which still carries the same overall price tag, speeds up work on the projects to restore the natural system and send more water flowing into the Everglades.

Thanks to those changes, "I can't imagine why people are going to fuss with the plan," said Terrence "Rock" Salt, executive director of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force.

But there are people who would like to see the restoration accelerated further, and others still dissatisfied with parts of the new plan, the cost of which is to be split by the state and federal governments.

For instance, Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club's Florida office says this version still does not completely address ways to clean up polluted water flowing into the River of Grass from farms and suburbs.

Water quality "could be a deal-killer," agreed Shannon Estenoz of the World Wildlife Fund, pointing out it would do little good to create a new system to send water through the Everglades if the water is still dirty. "We're talking about water clean enough for a restored natural system. That's clean."

Even staunch supporters of the Everglades plan still question the Corps' most daring idea for storing billions of gallons of fresh water: injecting it 1,000 feet into the aquifer, where it would float on the heavier, brackish water until needed, when it would be pumped back out.

The question, according to Florida Audubon Society Senior Vice President Charles Lee, is "how much faith should we have in novel and unproven technology . . . and if it's not borne out, then what replaces it?"

Meanwhile, the plan faces several hurdles before its delivery to Congress in July. One is a bill working its way through the Legislature that some fear could make Everglades restoration more expensive and send the wrong signal to Washington.

The other is a report from the Congress' General Accounting Office that promises to raise questions about how the restoration effort has been run so far.

Picking up the pace

Once the Everglades was a vast sheet of water, shallow and broad, flowing so slowly that for decades no one realized it was a river. Then along came the Central and South Florida Flood Control Project.

The C&SF controls all the water from the Kissimmee River south, using 1,000 miles of canals, 150 water-control structures and 16 major pump stations. Built by the Corps after a pair of hurricanes inundated South Florida in the 1940s, it is ruthlessly efficient in ridding South Florida of potential floods, clearing the way for rampant development.

But it wastes 1.7-billion gallons of water a day that could be used for drinking. It has rendered the River of Grass either parched or inundated. It has drowned deer, driven endangered birds closer to extinction, killed trees and fish and harmed Florida Bay.

So now the Corps wants to fix what it broke. The plan, formally known as the C&SF Restudy, calls for ripping out some canals and levees, raising 20 miles of the Tamiami Trail so the River of Grass can flow again, creating thousands of acres of man-made swamps and storing water in 300 deep wells and a pair of limestone quarries.

The plan's architects say the result would be a plumbing system that would allow what is left of the Everglades to function more naturally while still providing water for double the current population.

But the Corps' original plan was blasted by some environmentalists for appearing to put South Florida's water needs ahead of Everglades restoration. Projects to restore the Everglades' natural flow were not scheduled to be done until after other projects providing a drinking supply.

In the Restudy's new version, restoring the natural flow takes place far more rapidly. "We've advanced a lot of the projects so this really picks up the pace," said Corps restoration chief Stu Appelbaum.

About half of the surface water-storage areas needed to restore the natural flow will be complete by 2010, and most of the others will at least be under construction by then, he said. All of those projects, with the exception of converting the quarries into reservoirs, will be complete by 2020, he said. The quarries would be converted by 2036.

But Mary Munson, co-chair of the Everglades Coalition, a consortium of more than 40 environmental groups, said some environmentalists "are going to be hoping those dates can be moved up even further . . . (because) we've got species that are disappearing and don't have much time."

The first version of the Restudy was also criticized for barely mentioning water quality, even though the Everglades has been damaged by nutrients, mercury and pesticides among other pollutants.

The new version includes some projects designed to treat stormwater and recommends a comprehensive water-quality study that Appelbaum said would be "a separate plan, but it may tie back in. But setting pollution limits is obviously not something the Corps of Engineers does."

For some people, that's enough. Others want assurances the Corps will push the water quality project to completion as quickly as possible.

That's something to worry about in the future, though. For now, many of the people involved in Everglades restoration are more concerned about what's happening in the state Legislature.

"A poison pill'

Last year the Legislature passed a pair of Everglades bills that made the sugar industry happy but which environmentalists declared a disaster.

One would have given the Legislature control of every detail of Everglades restoration. The other would have changed the rules the government uses when it bought property for the restoration effort.

Backers said the bills would make Everglades restoration fairer for property owners and hold government more accountable for the restoration effort.

But critics said the two bills would antagonize Congress, jeopardize federal funding, jack up the price and delay the restoration effort. At the urging of seven members of Florida's congressional delegation, Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed both bills, calling the land-buying measure "a poison pill."

The Legislature's action did not go unnoticed in Washington, where one congressman asked the General Accounting Office to cast a cold eye on the entire ecosystem restoration effort.

The GAO report is slated to be issued this month with hearings scheduled in front of two congressional committees. Although the report has not been made public yet, "I'm not very optimistic that it's going to be positive," U.S. Sen. Bob Graham told a Tallahassee gathering last month.

The title of the report is "An Overall Strategic Plan and Decision-making Process Needed to Keep Effort on Track." To some involved in the restoration effort, that suggests it may even help the Restudy.

"I think there's going to be some expression in the report about our inability to move forward with things that need to be done," said Terry Rice, who commanded the Corps in Florida when the Restudy began.

Estenoz, Salt and others are less concerned about the GAO report than about the resurrection of the bills that Chiles vetoed last year. They are "definitely looking like Lazarus right now," Estenoz said.

Advocates of restoration fear that the revival will send another signal to Congress that state officials are not really committed to Everglades restoration, which could sour Congress on paying for its portion of the Restudy.

"At some point, Florida needs to make a firm commitment to Everglades restoration," Estenoz said. "We can't be every year fighting for this. This is a 20-year project. We can't be fighting this 20 times."