Swamp Thing

The conventional wisdom debunked.
June 15 2001 8:30 PM

Swamp Thing

The plan to restore the Everglades is not what you think it is. 

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The plan to save the Florida Everglades, the largest environmental project in the history of the planet, has been hailed far and wide as a bipartisan triumph. Last fall, Congress approved the $7.8 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan with only two dissenting votes, and even right-wingers like Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire—who once quit the Republican Party because it was too liberal—marked the moment with old-fashioned big-government rhetoric: "The cost would amount to a can of Coke per U.S. citizen per year!" In Florida, an amazing coalition of enviros, sugar magnates, citrus growers, rock-mining firms, water utilities, Indian tribes, business groups, and developers back the CERP. Just last week, President Bush joined his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and a bipartisan bevy of Sunshine State politicians at Everglades National Park to hype the latest cash infusion for "this beautiful slice of heaven."

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But as politicians and environmentalists scramble to claim credit for saving this national treasure, it's worth noting that their green bipartisan rhetoric has little to do with the reality of the 4,033-page plan. The CERP is Washington's version of the Holy Roman Empire: It's not a comprehensive plan, and it's only partly—some would say only barely—about Everglades restoration. Many credible scientists—including the top scientist at Everglades National Park—have warned that "this beautiful slice of heaven" would receive virtually no benefits from the first 10 years and $4 billion of the replumbing scheme. The CERP will definitely reroute water around South and Central Florida, but it is not yet clear how much of the water will go to the parched River of Grass and how much to well-connected industries, ravenous utilities, exploding suburbs, and all the other Florida interest groups that so enthusiastically support the plan.

To understand what's going on here, it helps to understand the Everglades. They are, indeed, a national treasure, a unique shallow-water ecosystem of sawgrass prairies and cypress swamps that provide habitat for dozens of endangered species. But in 1948, as I have described in the Washington Post, they were viewed primarily as a useless brown-and-green mosquito swamp, so Congress assigned the Army Corps of Engineers to drain them. The corps engineered a brilliant plumbing system of canals and levees and pumps that supplied the water for South Florida's residential boom while controlling the floods that had been devastating the region. Unfortunately, the project also ravaged the Everglades. Half the ecosystem has been lost over the years to water-intensive farming and development. The rest is an over-engineered mess, with too much water in some areas in wet years, not enough water in many more areas in dry years, and polluted water every year. Ninety percent of the region's renowned wading birds have disappeared. Thus, the demand for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

The CERP, however, is really a Theoretical Florida Water-Supply Experiment. It relies extraordinarily heavily on "adaptive management," which is basically a bureaucratic euphemism for trial and error. It gambles boldly on unproven technology, most notably more than 300 aquifers that may not effectively hold water. It depends mightily on the broad discretion of two organizations with questionable environmental credentials: the South Florida Water Management District, a state agency dedicated to water supply and flood control, and the Army Corps, the federal public works agency that left the Everglades in such awful condition in the first place. (For more than you ever wanted to know about abuses at the corps, click here for my very long series of articles in the Washington Post.)

So this massive Everglades restoration initiative is a lot vaguer than its supporters say. That's one myth. Here's the other: It's not purely an Everglades restoration initiative. That is just its green façade. The CERP is also by law an urban and agricultural water-supply initiative, as well as an economic growth and flood-control initiative. The Clinton administration tried to insert a formal guarantee that environmental restoration would be the top priority of the CERP, but it was deleted. A Clinton proposal to guarantee extra water to meet the needs of the national park, the diseased heart of the ecosystem, was also rejected. So was an effort to prohibit construction of an intrusive international airport at the edge of the Everglades. But a proposal to let the rock-mining industry dig up 20,000 acres of additional Everglades wetlands was included. And while the CERP does assure much more water for South Florida as a whole, it does not yet specify how much of the extra water will go to the Everglades and how much to additional agriculture and development that will put even more pressure on the Everglades. In general, most of the water-supply elements of the plan are scheduled sooner, the restoration efforts later, and Florida officials are now lobbying to make sure that water guarantees for the natural system are kept out of the regulations being drafted for implementing the plan.

That's because Florida officials represent a lot of people who don't really want the Everglades restored, people who farm and mine and live in and near the Everglades, people who depend on water that gets sucked out of the ecosystem and don't want it turned back into a swamp. These people have money and power. Some sugar growers, for example, have so much clout that they can get a president of the United States on the phone for, oh, 22 minutes or so, even if he happens to be, say, breaking up with his intern at the time.

This is why the grand Everglades coalition was born. A few years ago, environmentalists began to realize that they would never get any Everglades restoration plan out of the Florida Legislature without the support of the region's economic interests. And those interests saw a spectacular opportunity to get the federal government to foot half the bill for their various water needs in the name of Everglades restoration. Pretty soon, Bob Dawson, the top lobbyist for the various Florida industries, was pushing the CERP through the halls of Congress with Tom Adams, the top lobbyist for the National Audubon Society.

"People thought, jeez, if these guys can get in bed together, this plan must be something special," says Dawson, a former Hill staffer who oversaw the corps during the Reagan administration. "But that's what it took to get it done. If it was just an environmental plan, it never would have gotten out of the bog."

So it's not just an environmental plan. It's a political plan, cobbled together through intense deal-making, offering something for everyone. For example, just about everyone agrees that the key to restoring the Everglades is to "get the water right," to reproduce the natural sheet flow that originally crept clockwise from Lake Okeechobee all the way down to Florida Bay before the corps diverted it with all that fancy engineering. (Click here to see maps of the flow past and present.)

But the CERP does not really do that. Everyone agrees that you should start by storing more water from the lake instead of squirting it straight out to sea. But then what? Scientists say that the obvious area to store water is right below the lake—currently occupied by the sugar plantations that happen to be the main source of water pollution that is helping to destroy the Everglades. So you could buy out the sugar land. Then you could remove the diagonal levee and raise the east-west highway that are the two main barriers to the original sheet flow. Click to see several cool hydrological models of South Florida and a more detailed description of how the CERP will change the flow of water through the region. But such a truly natural solution that focused exclusively on the Everglades—sneered at by the engineers as "let her rip"—would have been anathema to sugar growers, rock miners, and the other special interests.

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