By CRAIG PITTMAN and VANITA GOWDA
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2000
Two weeks after a U.S. Senate committee chairman expressed frustration over delays, the Clinton administration has sent Congress legislation authorizing restoration of the Everglades to a semblance of its former self.
The bill, unveiled Tuesday, delighted environmentalists because it spelled out that the $7.8-billion project's "overarching purpose" is to "restore, preserve and protect the natural system" that was the River of Grass.
State officials were less thrilled with the part of the bill that says the secretary of the Army will decide by 2002 who gets water from the restoration project and when.
State officials have pushed for giving every water user -- sugar farmers and municipal utilities as well as the Everglades -- an equal right to the water produced by the restoration plan, which also is designed to supply water for a South Florida population that could double in 20 years.
The bill as now written "presents some issues of federalism and partnership" with the state, said Allison DeFoor, Gov. Jeb Bush's chief environmental aide. "The whole issue of partnership has got to be more equitable on all sides."
State officials have tried negotiating with the Clinton-Gore administration, DeFoor said, "but we haven't gotten very far."
During those negotiations, U.S. Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, blasted the White House for dragging its feet. Smith said he wanted to push the Everglades bill through as quickly as possible.
Cheering Smith's comments was Bush, who said he shared Smith's frustration with the delay. But environmental advocates said Bush's own negotiators were at least partly responsible.
"The state has been a real drag on this process in terms of not offering something workable," said Eric Draper of the Florida Audubon Society. "It's like, help create the delay and then blame the administration for the delay."
A spokesman for Smith called the bill "a good start."
The restoration plan, unveiled by Vice President Al Gore two years ago, aims to undo damage caused by the Army Corps of Engineers 50 years ago.
Originally the Everglades was a vast sheet of water flowing so slowly that no one realized it was a river. The Corps built a system of canals, levees and pumps to rid South Florida of potential floods and promote development. The system also wastes 1.7-billion gallons of water a day and has rendered the River of Grass either parched or inundated and harmed Florida Bay.
The restoration plan calls for ripping out some canals and levees, raising 20 miles of the Tamiami Trail so the River of Grass can flow unimpeded beneath it, creating thousands of acres of man-made swamps and storing water in 300 deep wells and a pair of limestone quarries.
Advocates of the 20-year plan emphasized Tuesday how little time is left to get the legislation passed this year. "The Everglades can't afford to wait another year or two," said Shannon Estenoz of the World Wildlife Fund.
DeFoor said state officials will not push for changes in the bill until after the Legislature approves Bush's plan for paying the state's half of the $400-million a year cost.
"The time to negotiate is after we've put our money on the table," DeFoor said. "If we don't get all the money, this is all academic."
One glitch in that payment plan has the South Florida Water Management District, which Bush said would come up with $100-million a year without raising taxes. Budget cuts found $42-million of that, but water officials said they could not come up with more. So far, however the Legislature has turned a deaf ear to their entreaties for help.
Last week David Struhs, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, flew to the water district's West Palm Beach headquarters to show officials where to find more money.
Struhs said South Florida's booming growth would boost the water district's tax base over the next 10 years and provide another $84-million for Everglades restoration without raising the tax rate. Water district officials, who learned about Struhs' plan the same time the press and public did, said this week they are still "digesting" it.