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    House would leave Everglades for someone else to clean up

    By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 13, 2003

    Now we know how long "forever" lasts in Florida:

    Nine years.

    In 1994, the Florida Legislature passed the Everglades Forever Act, launching the biggest environmental restoration project in the state's history. The act set strict deadlines for cleaning up the water flowing through the River of Grass.

    But now, nine years after that landmark legislation, a combination of sugar interests, state legislators and Gov. Jeb Bush want to push the ultimate deadline back.

    Under a bill that won near-unanimous approval last week from the House Natural Resources Committee, the Everglades' water flow can stay dirty for another two decades, until 2026.

    Sugar executives, whose army of lobbyists pushing the bill included two former House speakers, were clearly pleased. But environmentalists and an Indian tribe that lives in the Everglades, the Miccosukees, vowed to sue.

    And U.S. congressmen from both parties warned that this could unravel the ties of cooperation between federal and state government on the $8-billion restoration of the Everglades.

    "You cannot amend this bill now . . . and then expect the federal government to keep writing checks to restore the same Everglades Florida won't stop polluting," U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R-Miami, wrote to the committee.

    Yet nothing would dissuade the committee from pushing through the bill presented by their chairman, Rep. Joe Spratt, R-LaBelle -- not even the fact that he had unveiled it publicly just a week before, after holding repeated meetings with agriculture interests but nary a one with environmental groups or federal officials.

    The bill has no other committee stops before it goes to the full House. If history is any guide, this bill will fly through both houses and be signed by Bush -- who during his first term promised to accelerate the cleanup of the River of Grass, not slow it down.

    That's because the history of Everglades restoration is more like the history of Everglades procrastination.

    In 1988, the U.S. Justice Department sued Florida, charging that state officials had failed to halt pollution flowing into the Everglades. In the suit, U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen accused state officials of ignoring for more than a decade the worsening conditions for fear of upsetting Big Sugar.

    As a result, cattails were spreading throughout the state's most famous swamp, supplanting the native sawgrass, blocking wading birds, altering the flow of water. The cattails took over because of phosphorus, a pollutant that for decades had been flowing into the Everglades from sugar and vegetable farms and the sprawling suburbs of South Florida.

    In some areas the phosphorus was pouring in at astonishing levels, topping more than 300 parts per billion -- 30 times the maximum amount that federal scientists said the Everglades could handle.

    The phosphorus not only wiped out the sawgrass and stimulated the growth of the noxious cattails. It also killed the brown algae that forms the base of the Everglades' food chain. Scientists feared that the ecosystem would never recover.

    In 1991, state officials decided to settle the lawsuit. State and federal officials told U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler that the state had agreed to start cleaning up the runoff flowing into the Everglades.

    The state promised to build thousands of acres of marshes that would filter out the phosphorus. The two sides even set a deadline: By 1997, four-fifths of the phosphorus would be gone. By 2002 the flow of pollution would be cut to just 10 parts per billion.

    The agreement didn't last. Sugar interests filed more than a dozen lawsuits.

    So three years later, the Legislature passed the Everglades Forever Act, which ended those suits but pushed the deadline for the lower phosphorus standard back to 2006. Sugar supported the delay. Environmental groups and the Miccosukees did not.

    But state and federal officials persuaded Judge Hoeveler to accept the change. The judge, in approving the new deadlines, included what he called a "note of warning": If state lawmakers delayed the cleanup again, their actions might be illegal.

    Since then, some actual progress has been made, to everyone's surprise. The filter marshes have worked better than expected, and sugar farmers have cleaned up their act as well. In some places the discharge into the Everglades has been cut to just 16 parts per billion.

    But getting down to 10 in three years is another story. Can't be done, say South Florida Water Management District officials, who are in charge of the cleanup. And the state's top environmental regulator, David Struhs, told legislators last week that he doesn't want to be in the position of finding another state agency in violation of the law.

    Struhs later told reporters that he didn't really want to make any changes to the Everglades Forever Act. He said he and the governor are simply acknowledging "political reality" by agreeing to a 20-year extension of the deadline. It's the only way to hang onto the 10 parts per billion standard, he said.

    Yet the bill the committee passed doesn't do that either. It adopts the language in a plan that the water district board approved last month with no public notice, which says that phosphorus could range as high as 15 parts per billion.

    Two federal scientists who reviewed that plan told water district officials that it left them with "grave doubts that any semblance of acceptable water quality will ever be achieved."

    Struhs on Friday conceded the committee bill could stand a rewrite. "There should be no dispute about our commitment," he said. If people still think the bill could allow something other than 10 parts per billion, "we will make it clearer."

    Bush has repeatedly touted his support for Everglades restoration. If he fails to stop this bill, it could undermine all his previous work, warned Audubon of Florida vice president Charles Lee, who has been on the losing end of these battles for years. If he signs the bill, Bush's legacy as a savior of the Everglades "turns into dust," Lee said.

    And as for the Everglades Forever Act, Lee said, the new bill might could make use of that title too: "Because at this rate it's going to take forever before we make the Everglades clean."

    Craig Pittman covers state environmental issues for the Times. Staff writer Julie Hauserman and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article.

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