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    Everglades restoration passes test

    The multibillion-dollar plan involves 68 projects over 36 years designed to pump clean water back into the Everglades.

    By JOHN BALZ

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 22, 2000


    WASHINGTON -- The Senate opened debate on Everglades restoration Thursday and overwhelmingly defeated an amendment that threatened a fragile compromise behind the multibillion-dollar project.

    Restoration supporters believe they successfully cleared a significant hurdle, setting the stage for a final vote Monday on the omnibus $2.7-billion water resources development act, which includes the Everglades project.

    "We can't wait any longer for the Everglades to die," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. "We must act now. It is the right thing to do."

    But first, the deal had to get past an amendment introduced by Sen. John Warner, R-Va.

    Calling the 50-50 cost-sharing agreement between the state and the federal government a breach of precedent, Warner offered an amendment that would require Florida to pay for all operation and maintenance costs associated with the Everglades restoration project, which is estimated at about $172-million annually. State governments have been picking up these tabs since 1986, he said.

    "What is it about the mystique and the romance of the Florida Everglades that we should change a law that has served this country well for 14 years?" said Warner, who also said he supports the restoration plan.

    But the Senate rejected Warner's amendment, 71-24.

    Passage of the act on Monday would approve the first stage in the ambitious $8-billion project and bring four years of environmental planning to fruition.

    Florida lawmakers are eager to send legislation to the president's desk but acknowledge that their plans are far from a sure thing with just 15 days left in this congressional session and new questions about the price tag of this restoration plan. According to a recent General Accounting Office report the cost of the plan could be as high as $14-billion.

    A similar bill has yet to be voted on in the House. President Clinton has indicated he will sign it.

    In arguing against Warner's amendment, Florida's two senators, Republican Connie Mack and Democrat Bob Graham, said Florida already was scheduled to pay half of the construction costs of the project, 15 percent more than other restoration projects, and that because nearly half of the Everglades is on federally owned land, the government has an obligation to contribute part of the maintenance costs.

    Last week, major players in the Everglades restoration project reached a compromise that brought them together in full support of the Senate bill. The coalition of leading environmental groups, Florida's agriculture industry, Gov. Jeb Bush's office, South Florida water utilities and the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes expressed satisfaction with the initial $1.4-billion, 35-project proposal approved by the Senate Environment and Public Works committee in late June.

    Proponents of the bill said Warner's amendment would jeopardize the fragile coalition of Florida interests and the political marriage between Florida and Uncle Sam they had worked so hard to fashion. The restoration plan, the largest in the nation's history, involves 68 engineering projects over 36 years designed to pump fresh, clean water back into the Everglades and let water flow naturally through the wetlands. It includes building more than 300 wells and above-ground aquifers, creating new wetlands and eliminating almost 250 miles of canals.

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