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    Clinton's signature launches Everglades rescue project

    After bipartisan cooperation, President Clinton approves the first phase of an $8-billion plan to restore the "River of Grass.''

    By JOHN BALZ

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 12, 2000


    WASHINGTON -- One of the Bush brothers got a clear answer out of Washington on Monday. It was Jeb Bush, not George W. And the answer had to do with the Florida Everglades, not the election.

    President Clinton signed the first phase of the ambitious $8-billion Everglades restoration plan into law Monday, giving the go ahead to the first in a series of water projects designed to revamp the fabled "River of Grass."

    Joining him in the Oval Office signing ceremony was Gov. Jeb Bush, who entered the White House as lawyers were wrapping up arguments about his brother's election before the U.S. Supreme Court. Jeb Bush and Clinton shook hands but did not discuss the election.

    "In an era or a time where people are focused on politics, and there's a little acrimony -- I don't know whether y'all have noticed -- this is a good example of how in spite of all that, bipartisanship is still alive," Bush told reporters after the bill signing.

    The president's signature authorizes $1.4-billion worth of water recovery projects that will get under way in 2002. It sets in motion a larger 68-project restoration plan intended to revamp South Florida's water supply and save the Everglades.

    The legislation, which is part of the umbrella Water Resources Development Act, was approved by the Senate and the House earlier this fall and has the support of Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

    Lawmakers could hardly contain their zeal at an afternoon press conference, praising a project that is nearly a decade in the making.

    "This is a very happy day for the Everglades, and it is a signal day for the improvement of the world trying to repair damaged environmental ecosystems," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla. "There has never been an effort of this scale or complexity that is now under way to save a dying environmental system."

    Politically and technologically daring, the 36-year restoration involves 68 separate engineering projects designed to restore natural flow in cypress swamps, saw grass marshes and mangrove estuaries that was lost in 1948 when Congress ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to drain the fragile ecosystem. Florida's environmentalists, homeowners and agriculture groups reached a compromise this summer after Gov. Bush had prodded the Florida Legislature to foot half of the project's total costs, roughly $4-billion.

    "It took trust," said Rep. Porter Goss, R-Sanibel. "We all agree with the goal but not always the how to. The hardest part is going to be keeping this coalition together."

    What is becoming more apparent is that implementing any restoration plan is going to rely on new, untested technology and the foresight of future political leaders, some of whom may not be born yet.

    "None of us are going to be here in 30 years," said Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale. "But this is such a wonderful environmental project that whoever stands in my shoes when I retire is going to have a commitment to it. This project is bigger than any member of Congress."

    The planning stages of several projects will begin immediately, including filling the Miami Canal and creating four large reservoirs in Martin and Palm Beach counties.

    "There's no time to lose, no time to slack off in any way," said Michael Davis, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, who oversees the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

    In what may turn out to be the most important project, the Army is set to spend $6-million on a test of whether one of the plan's most crucial elements will actually work: injecting a billion gallons of freshwater deep beneath the ground, where it will be held as a bubble in the brackish aquifer until it's needed.

    Scientific questions abound regarding whether the technique known as aquifer storage and recovery can work on such a massive scale, especially given the unique geology of South Florida. So the initial test wells will help determine whether that part of the restoration plan is viable. The Army is supposed to give Congress a report on the pilot project in about six months.

    Tom Adams, a lobbyist for the National Audubon Society, said restoration efforts must be made now if the Everglades is to have any hopes of surviving and that the plan is flexible enough to change technologies and incorporate new ones if the results are not what lawmakers and scientists expect.

    - Times staff writer Craig Pittman contributed to this report.

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