Florida Everglades Cleanup: A River of Morass

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Joe Raedle / Getty Images

A Great Egret in the Florida Everglades

On December 11, 2000, with Governor Jeb Bush at his side, President Bill Clinton signed a landmark $7.8 billion bill to revive the dying Florida Everglades. It was the largest ecosystem restoration project in the history of the planet, and one of the most surreal ceremonies in the history of the Oval Office; that day, the Supreme Court was hearing Bush v. Gore, to decide whether Jeb's brother or Clinton's vice president would take over the office. But if Florida's political swamp was dividing the nation into red and blue, Florida's actual swamp was uniting the antagonists around green. Outside the White House, reporters grilled Jeb about the partisan war raging down the street, but he waved them off, proclaiming that bipartisanship was still alive. "We're here to talk about something that's going to be long-lasting, way past counting votes," he said. "This is the restoration of a treasure for our country."

Ten years later, the Everglades is still dying, and the price tag for the restoration is up to $13.5 billion. The project looks long-lasting, all right; none of its 68 components has been completed. The basic problem with the Everglades — water that doesn't flow right and isn't clean enough — remains unsolved. Half the River of Grass is still gone, a maze of highways, levees and canals still slices and dices what's left, and the dysfunctional Army Corps of Engineers, which helped ravage the Everglades in the first place, is still in charge of resuscitating it. Meanwhile, the dike that protects millions of Floridians from Lake Okeechobee is leaking, the Everglade snail kite is flirting with extinction, and invasive Burmese pythons are running roughshod through the marsh.

Really, it's become a River of Morass. 

There has been some progress lately under Governor Charlie Crist and President Obama, and there is still bipartisan support for the idea of saving the Glades. But the decade mark was supposed to be a proof-of-concept milestone; project leaders secured the support of skeptical scientists and environmentalists by promising major ecological advances by 2010. Some of us remained skeptical even then. Everglades National Park's lobbyist predicted that congressmen would lose their enthusiasm for Florida's gators and panthers and otters if they didn't see tangible results: "In 10 years, I'm afraid, they're going to wonder what they've bought for their billions." She was right to be afraid, and now the overflowing coffers of 2000 have given way to brutal state and federal budget crises.

This is all a big deal, and not just because the Everglades is a unique wilderness with quirky wildlife, or even because it's a vital economic engine that attracts tourists and sits atop south Florida's water supply. The Everglades, greens like to say, is a test: If we pass, we may get to keep the planet. And the Everglades project is a model for ecosystem restorations around the country (the Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes, Louisiana's coastal wetlands) and around the world (the Pantanal, the Okavango Delta, the Garden of Eden marshes that Saddam Hussein destroyed in Iraq). It's a test of our science, our engineering and our political will; indeed, it's a test of man's ability to manage water and live in harmony with nature.

We haven't flunked yet. After years of squabbling, posturing and litigating, dirt is finally flying. Obama's stimulus has jump-started a project to restore some drained southwest Florida swampland that was once destined to be become a resort community. Two long-stalled restoration projects that pre-dated the Clinton plan are finally moving; one of them, a nightmarish effort to rehydrate the national park known as "Mod Waters," reached the legal drinking age this year. Another pre-Clinton project to revive the Kissimmee River at the headwaters of the Everglades is producing spectacular results, restoring more than 20,000 acres of wetlands. The feds and the state also agreed on a procedural "master plan" for the Everglades, ending a ridiculous stalemate that persisted for years. And while political opposition and fiscal deterioration blocked Crist's audacious effort to buy 187,000 acres of sugar fields in the northern Everglades, he did manage to secure 27,000 acres, and an option to buy more in the future.

"A lot of big things have been happening lately," says Shannon Estenoz, a longtime Everglades activist who has served on Crist's water board, and last week accepted a job coordinating Everglades work for Obama's Interior Department. "There's still a lot of uncertainty, but we're in a much better place."

The first uncertainties are technical. The original Corps restoration plan aimed to store vast amounts of water in wet times (to avoid floods and damaging releases into biodiverse estuaries) so that it's available in dry times (to avoid droughts and damaging fires in parched marshes). But one key storage strategy, high-tech aquifer wells, now appears unlikely to work at the scale the Corps had hoped. And it now appears that the park will need a lot more water than the Corps had hoped. Crist's massive land-buying scheme would create space for more reservoirs, but his successor, conservative Rick Scott, seems unenthused about spending billions of dollars to take SUGAR fields out of commission.

These kind of political and financial uncertainties are even more daunting. Rhetorically, politicians love to talk about protecting the Everglades, but practically, it tends to be their top priority except for everything else. President Obama and the Democratic Congress have been much more helpful with funding than President Bush and the Republican Congress, and Governor Crist was much less cozy with the sugar industry and the development industry than Governor Bush. But now there's much less money available, and much less interest in eco-projects.

There are also legal uncertainties. Thanks to Federal litigation and gobs of state money, the water quality in the Everglades has gradually improved over the last two decades. But that means the Everglades is just getting poisoned a bit less quickly; to comply with clean-water law the state would have to spend additional gobs of money. There are two federal judges overseeing this mess, and they have been losing patience with the pace of the cleanup; meanwhile, even under Crist, state officials have defied the judges, and recently filed suit against the Obama Administration. At some point there will be a collision, and nobody knows how that will affect restoration.

Finally, there are bureaucratic uncertainties. The unlikely bipartisan ceremony at the White House ten years ago reflected the Kumbaya nature of the Everglades plan. It was not just an environmental plan; in fact, it specified that the environment could not take precedence over economic interests, which is why it had support from Big Sugar and other Florida power players. Conflicts were just postponed until the Corps started designing projects. Ultimately, the bipartisan consensus that zipped the restoration plan through Tallahassee and Washington with only a few dissenting votes was as tenuous as the clenched smiles in the Oval Office that strange December day. This is why the Corps has presided over so many meetings and conferences and negotiating sessions that never seem to end up with a completed project.

As a card-carrying Everglades obsessive I've always believed the technical challenges of restoration were overrated. Basically, we need to clean and store water at the top of the watershed, then remove barriers so it can flow through the rest of the watershed. But that's a lot harder than it sounds, because the other challenges are real. As one frequent Everglades litigator likes to say, water in South Florida flows uphill towards money. If that doesn't change over the next ten years, we could lose our best chance to salvage a national treasure. And if we can't save the Everglades-after so much science, so much money, so much rhetoric and so many cool postcards-it's hard to imagine what we can save.