1. Opinion

For Everglades plan to work, fund and verify

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Published Jul. 9, 2012

Half a century ago, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, founder of Friends of the Everglades, was fiercely skeptical of governmental efforts to restore the fading River of Grass without ironclad assurances to reverse harms done to the Everglades by misguided engineering and agricultural policies.

The new $880 million government plan to treat polluted water dumped by Big Sugar into the Everglades is the result of a federal lawsuit by Friends of the Everglades and the Miccosukee Tribe. It is a step in the right direction but for two facts: It lacks funding guarantees for the period of construction and it is also virtually unenforceable due to huge lawyers' loopholes.

In 2004, Friends sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its manifest and long-standing failure to enforce clean water standards against polluters in the sugar industry who were in clear violation of the 1992 Everglades Forever Act. The act provides for a strict phosphorus limit of 10 parts per billion for water in the Everglades. Scientists universally agreed that phosphorus — a common component of fertilizers used by Big Sugar — was harming the River of Grass. At the time, then-Gov. Jeb Bush had taken steps to break the agreement to pieces.

Federal Judge Alan S. Gold agreed with Friends and our co-plaintiff, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, that the EPA and the state of Florida had been derelict in enforcing clean water standards. Finally, more than four years after the judge's first ruling and with the threat of contempt sanctions looming, a plan has been offered by Gov. Rick Scott's administration with the approval of EPA to resolve the Friends' Clean Water Act lawsuit.

The plan that the state now offers falls short of what EPA believed was necessary to meet Everglades' pollution goals ($880 million versus $1.5 billion for a series of new shallow marshes to treat Big Sugar's chemical pollution). The judge, by now an expert on Everglades complexities, has boiled thousands of pages of court records down to these two critical issues: How will the plan be funded? And is it enforceable? These are the main questions that will be before the court on July 18.

Along with our environmental colleagues, we are encouraged that the state has at least come forward with a plan to address Everglades water quality problems; not just on the Friends litigation, but through a serious effort to fix water quality problems in the northern Everglades and through an effort to cleanse water in the central Everglades.

On the other hand, Friends doubts the state, the Water District and, particularly, the Legislature are truly committed to this plan through the necessary funding. Throughout, Friends believed that the appropriate taxing entity — the South Florida Water Management District — could meet the entire amount required by the EPA plan. The history of the Everglades shows that all three entities have repeatedly thwarted efforts to save the River of Grass from destruction by Big Sugar and others.

Can we trust the state, when it is locked, as it now is, in a congressional battle to eliminate federal Clean Water Act standards in Florida? Or when it, once again, supports back-pumping chemically polluted water from sugar fields into Lake Okeechobee, a dismal practice that Friends fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court? Moreover, the Legislature has failed to repeal the 2003 legislation amending the Everglades Forever Act, passed during the Jeb Bush term, bypassing earlier commitments and permitting another decade of harmful Everglades pollution.

On behalf of our members and the people of Florida, Friends of the Everglades will stay the course. We are reminded how President Ronald Reagan described the process of standing down the nuclear arms race: trust, but verify. If we can't verify, we wonder what the future holds.

Friends has not forgotten Big Sugar is required to pay for its pollution cleanup under Article II, Section 7 of the Florida Constitution, the "Polluter Pays" provision. So far, what the state and EPA propose is a step in the right direction but lacks the ironclad commitments that Douglas fought for and that our organization is determined to achieve for Florida and the nation's interest in the Everglades.

Alan Farago, a writer and environmentalist, is president of Friends of the Everglades.