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Everglades Forever? We'll see if they mean it

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 23, 2003

We continue to suffer," David B. Struhs told me Tuesday, which was Earth Day, "from a bad first impression."

Hard to argue.

The first impression that many Floridians got, and some continue to have, is that Gov. Jeb Bush and the state Legislature are making changes to weaken the Everglades Forever Act.

Struhs is the governor's secretary of environmental protection. That puts him in charge of explaining why this impression is not true. So I called and asked him to give it a whirl.

I heard Struhs say two kinds of things:

His department opposes some of the same bad ideas in the Legislature's bills that environmentalists oppose, especially in the Big Sugar-friendly House. He believes these ideas will be removed. If they are not, his department will revisit its support. (I look forward to holding the secretary to his words. More about those bad ideas in a minute.)

Struhs argues that the main criticism of the effort -- that it delays cleanup by as long as 20 years -- is not valid. The deadline remains 2006. But because nobody really believes we can meet that deadline, what's being discussed is a plan for what to do afterward.

When Florida is sued down the road for not meeting the 2006 deadline, a judge is just going to order the state to get the job done as fast as possible anyway, Struhs said: "I want to go in there and say the job is 96 percent done and we have a good plan that is going to close the rest of the gap."

I asked Eric Draper about this post-2006 thinking. Draper is vice president of policy for Florida Audubon. "That is the general flaw in the bill," Draper replied. He worried that under these proposals, when Florida does blow its deadline, the result will be a fairly weak: "Well, give it your best shot." With the House talking about a long-term plan that runs until 2026, what kind of sense of urgency does that convey? It is bad symbolism at least.

All parties do agree, and it should be said, that Florida has come a long way since the Everglades Forever Act was passed in 1994, and we settled a federal lawsuit. Levels of phosphorus have dropped from a choking 200 parts per billion, feeding algae and cattails, down to 25 parts per billion or lower. That's still not good enough, however. Struhs' department says the standard needs to be 10 parts per billion.

This brings us to the biggest bad idea in the Legislature, and the reason Floridians are rightly worried.

The House's bill started out with a pollution level of 15 parts per billion, not 10. The language has changed a little, but it is still not clear enough. Struhs said he wants 10, and, again, I look forward to holding him to it.

Another offensive idea in the House bill is a 20-year ban on condemning any private land to expand Everglades water treatment areas. The only alternative left would be to cannibalize existing public land. One big beneficiary from this protection: U.S. Sugar.

But again, Struhs told me he does not especially like the idea. To keep the feds happy, Florida ought not be narrowing its options for water treatment. As to whether the secretary actually sheds blood for this idea, we will see.

Another distasteful (in my opinion) part of the bill is to extend current taxes on South Florida property owners to pay for cleanup. Meanwhile, sugar companies would get only a modest extension of their own taxes. On this question, Struhs was noncommittal, and it did not sound as though it would be something he would fight to change.

I asked Struhs about the complaints from Congress and even the U.S. interior secretary over Florida's monkeying with the 1994 deal. If Congress gets the idea that Florida wants to keep polluting, while the feds keep paying to clean it up, then won't Florida be in danger of losing federal money?

"There's a lag time in terms of people catching up," Struhs said. The Senate's version already is better than the House's, and is undergoing even more favorable amendments. He will convince the feds Florida is not weakening.

This is what the governor's man said. We will know him by his works in something like two weeks. It will either be a crisis minimized, or one of the biggest failures of the Bush administration.

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