Crist pledges help for Glades

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
Published January 21, 2007

ORLANDO - Tackling his first major environmental issue, Gov. Charlie Crist pledged Saturday to push forward with restoring the Everglades, despite the problems the project has run into in the past seven years.

"I want you to know I am deeply committed to restoring the Everglades ecosystem," Crist said in a rambling five-minute address. "We need to protect it and nurture it for future generations."

Crist, speaking by phone to about 200 attendees at the annual Everglades Coalition conference, said he has already talked to Florida's congressional delegation about securing the missing federal funding for the $10.8-billion project.

Crist talked of strengthening "this profound partnership" with the federal government to save the River of Grass.

He also repeatedly mentioned how beautiful Florida's natural resources are, then told the gathering of environmental activists, scientists and policymakers, "I'm a Republican but I gotta tell you, I care so deeply about protecting her. ... I'll never let you down, I promise."

Crist's promise to renew the partnership with the federal government came on the same day as a speech from the state's most prominent Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson, that delivered a similar message.

For five years, Congress has failed to come up with the money or legal authorization to proceed with plans to restore the Everglades. Nelson promised that the delays will end soon.

"We can't wait any longer," said Nelson, D-Fla. "Each day we delay, the nation loses more of one of its natural wonders."

Nelson said he has been assured by the Senate's new Democratic leadership that there will be action at last on a long-delayed bill authorizing construction on some of the restoration's early projects.

Not only will Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., speed hearings on the bill in her Environment and Public Works Committee, Nelson said, she also has promised to personally tour the Everglades with Nelson and his wife, Grace, later this year.

Launched with great fanfare in 2000, the Everglades restoration project calls for repairing the damage done by the complex system of canals, pumps and levees that were built to drain South Florida for settlement - a system that today works all too well, flushing out to sea on average more than 1-billion gallons of water a day.

The plan, the largest and most complex environmental rescue in the world, calls for holding that water in reservoirs and deep wells, to be released more gradually and redirected to mimic what was once the natural flow of the River of Grass. It also would provide enough drinking water to double South Florida's population.

Both Congress and the Legislature approved the project by nearly unanimous votes. At the time, it was priced at $7.8-billion and expected to take 30 years. Building it would be a joint responsibility of state and federal agencies, splitting the cost and the work 50-50.

Advocates hope to get project on track

Congress was expected to pass a bill in 2002 authorizing the Army Corps of Engineers to get to work on some of the restoration projects. But no such bill has been approved.

Instead, congressional ardor for the project cooled over perceptions that Florida officials were less concerned about helping the environment than about keeping developers and sugar farmers happy. Because of congressional inaction, federal officials have done little to move the project forward.

So two years ago Gov. Jeb Bush launched a state drive to get some of the Everglades' construction work under way anyway. But the state's efforts have been criticized as misdirected, aimed more at providing water for growth rather than for nature.

However, with a new governor in office and new leaders in Congress, Everglades advocates are hopeful the project can get back on track, although getting attention for it may be difficult now that other issues, such as the Iraq war, have superseded it in prominence.

Nelson: Sign a petition for action

"The challenge for us is to keep Everglades restoration at the forefront," Nelson said. So he asked all the attendees at the conference, meeting at a new hotel built near the River of Grass' historic headwaters at Shingle Creek in Orlando, to sign a petition he will deliver to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, demanding quick action on the Everglades.

Nelson, who grew up in Brevard County, said he got a vivid reminder of the cost of inaction the last time he visited the Indian River lagoon, which has been a dumping ground for Lake Okeechobee's polluted overflow. He found the St. Lucie River so contaminated by a toxic algae bloom that the water "was just a phosphorescent green."

"And what was more amazing to me," he said, "was that I saw absolutely no wildlife. ... It was a dead river."