As governor, Bush sided with campaign contributor on delaying Everglades pollution cleanup

Gov. Jeb Bush discusses his Everglades plan in October 2004, after passage of a bill to push back a cleanup date. 
Gov. Jeb Bush discusses his Everglades plan in October 2004, after passage of a bill to push back a cleanup date. 
Published Sept. 28, 2015

In a speech last week, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush called for rolling back government regulations on oil drilling, carbon emissions and other activities, arguing that red tape is hindering the growth of the economy.

Unlike other leading Republican presidential candidates, Bush has experience in this area. He can point to his record while governor of rolling back Florida environmental regulations — although one rollback in particular brought him sharp criticism from politicians from his own party.

The rollback concerned Bush's signature environmental initiative, saving the Everglades. And it benefited Florida's sugar industry, now a major donor to his Right to Rise Super PAC.

Bush boasted in the most recent debate that nobody owns him, but some would argue that what happened in 2003 may undermine that claim.

"The sugar industry owns everybody in Tallahassee, and it doesn't matter if you're a Democrat or a Republican," said veteran Audubon of Florida activist Charles Lee. "I can't blame Jeb any more than all the other governors and legislative leaders who have buckled under sugar's pressure over the years."

During Bush's eight years as governor, he left a distinctive mark on several environmental programs. He launched the state's first comprehensive effort to save its declining springs, an initiative later shut down by Gov. Rick Scott. He oversaw the acquisition of thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive land, a program later drained of money by the Legislature.

By far his most ambitious project was the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program. The program, originally expected to take 20 years and cost $8.7 billion, mapped out a way to re-plumb the fading River of Grass with a system of pumps, levees, canals and wells that would make its flow mimic its original one. It would also provide water for the continued development of South Florida.

With Bush's backing the Everglades bill sailed through the Legislature in 2000 as easily as its federal companion passed Congress. On Dec. 11, 2000, Bush stood next to then-President Bill Clinton as Clinton signed Everglades restoration into law.

Why would an antitax, anti-government crusader like Bush back an expensive public works program to save a vast, unoccupied marsh?

"He sensed that it was legacy stuff," explained Allison DeFoor, a former Monroe County judge who served as Bush's so-called Everglades czar. "If you're from South Florida, you sense that (the Everglades) ties everything together — the environment, the economy, water, farming, jobs, you name it. … He really cared."

Bush's Everglades success "is evidence it is possible to manage restoration of this national treasure in a fiscally sound way," presidential campaign spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said, and shows how he'll tackle similar problems as president.

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A crucial ally in getting the legislation passed, DeFoor said, was the sugar industry.

"They're the biggest landowners down there," he explained. "It's impossible to have any policy go through without them."

Companies such as U.S. Sugar and Flo-Sun had also been major contributors to both Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future and to the Republican Party of Florida, which bankrolled Bush's successful 1998 campaign.

The Everglades restoration program focused on water quantity. The sugar industry was more concerned about water quality.

The Everglades cannot tolerate more than a microscopic amount of phosphorous flowing through its sawgrass. Runoff from sugar farms has long contained too much phosphorous, wiping out the sawgrass and spreading cattails, which are all wrong for the wildlife found in the Everglades.

A 1994 law called the Everglades Forever Act set a deadline of 2006 for eliminating that pollution. But as the deadline crept closer, sugar executives decided they needed more time.

In 2003, the industry deployed more than 40 lobbyists in Tallahassee to push a bill — unveiled halfway through the session — that said the water didn't need to be clean by then.

Instead, it said, all that had to be done by then was to adopt a plan to stop the pollution. It also used language such as "to the maximum extent practicable" and "earliest practicable date." The industry's goal: push the cleanup deadline back to 2026.

Legislators from both parties, who counted the sugar companies as major contributors, quickly jumped to pass the bill. It became a steamroller that no environmental group could stop, no matter how often they called it the "Everglades Whenever Act." (Among the House members who voted for it: future U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.)

David B. Struhs, Bush's Department of Environmental Protection secretary, had once vowed to meet the 2006 deadline. When he testified in favor of the delay at a committee hearing, a Times reporter pursued him through the Capitol seeking an explanation of his reversal. Cornered at last, Struhs blamed his flip-flop on what he called "political reality."

Influential Republicans in Congress, such as Appropriations Committee chairman C.W. Bill Young, objected. They warned that delaying the pollution cleanup could jeopardize the overall Everglades restoration program. They urged Bush to veto the bill.

Then another party weighed in: the Miami federal judge overseeing a Justice Department lawsuit against the state over Everglades pollution. In a blistering order, Senior U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler wrote that he was "deeply troubled" by the bill and dismayed it was passed so quickly that it "seemed calculated to avoid federal participation or public scrutiny."

In a subsequent interview the judge told the Times Bush was "a good man" but "I'm afraid he fell into the hands of those who don't like the Everglades."

Bush lashed out at critics of the bill, which now changed the deadline to 2016. Legislative leaders said they took their direction from him.

"We did this bill because the governor said it was a good bill," Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said then.

When he finally signed it into law — behind closed doors, outside public scrutiny — Bush called the bill "strong legislation built on good policy."

The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, which lives in the Everglades, sued, as did the environmental group founded by Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said last week that the 2003 law "has been a landmark success" because the amount of phosphorus flowing off the industry's land has been cut every year.

However, it still hasn't hit the purity level required for the River of Grass, said Tom Van Lent, director of science of the Everglades Foundation. Once Bush allowed the deadline to be pushed back, he said, "since that time till now there has been a deterioration of the general health of the Everglades."

It took Scott to resolve the problem. In 2012 he cut a deal with the Environmental Protection Agency to spend $880 million on filter marshes and other structures to clean up the phosphorus.

Because of the construction schedule on those structures, Van Lent said, "we're today looking at 2025 as the date for compliance." That's just a year short of what the sugar industry wanted.

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this story. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.