In 2000, Florida and the U.S. government held hands and pledged eternal partnership. It had to be eternal because saving the Everglades will take a generation.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration issue was bipartisan. “Saving America’s Everglades” passed overwhelmingly.
The state and the nation forged a 50/50 partnership. The state would be responsible for water quality and land acquisition. The feds would be responsible for constructing projects.
The state started with enthusiasm. In 1991, Gov. Lawton Childs laid down his sword before a federal judge in a longstanding water-quality lawsuit and accepted the fact that it was Florida’s Everglades, and we would clean it up.
Jeb Bush proudly supported the Florida Forever Initiative, committing the state to $300 million a year to buy land. The feds went forward with planning for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP).
The honeymoon was short.
The first component of CERP that completed a detailed plan was the Indian River Lagoon – south, but no Water Resources Act bill authorizing construction passed until 2007.
The state got tired of paying for water-quality improvements and went back to court. In 2004, Gov. Bush declared that the feds were moving too slowly, and the state would take over construction of key reservoirs. Nothing got built.
Two big breakthroughs seemed to turn things around.
In 2008, Gov. Crist announced the U.S. Sugar deal to buy 183,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee to provide water storage and water treatment and move water south.
The feds completed a plan to raise the Tamiami Trail through a series of bridges that would move more water south.
Stimulus funds built the first one-mile bridge on the trail. The Corps of Engineers committed to fast-track projects to move water south under the new bridges.
Then the state stopped buying land for CERP projects. Now the feds were pouring money and manpower into Everglades restoration, and the state was becoming a silent partner.
Then Gov. Rick Scott hammered out a settlement for the longstanding water-quality lawsuit with a commitment to clean up state waters flowing onto federal lands. Then it rained. They dumped Lake Okeechobee to the coastal estuaries. The St. Lucie turned neon green from toxic algae. The state Health Department told residents not to stick a toe in the water.
The populace took up pitchforks and staged rallies. All the levels of government blamed each other. That partnership had failed. What will it take to put Humpty Dumpty together again?
Unfortunately, the answers are technical. Politicians and an angry populace hate technical answers and long-term solutions. The Indian River Lagoon and the St. Lucie Estuary are in crisis. They might die tomorrow. The rest of the system won’t be far behind.
There are solutions. Here’s what needs to happen:
CEPP: The Central Everglades Plan to move water south needs to be ready for authorization in the coming Water Resources Development Act . WRDA needs to include authorization for the C43 reservoir on the Caloosahatchee and other projects that are ready to go.
WRDA: We need to convince a dysfunctional Congress that it has to pass a WRDA Bill.
CERP: Congress needs to accelerate CERP funding and immediately fund the project and reservoirs around the lake. Walking away from the comprehensive plan to look for silver bullets won’t work.
LAND: The state’s responsibility in the CERP project is to buy land. They stopped doing that. The Corps of Engineers cannot buy land. Without land acquisition the projects can’t be engineered and they can’t be built. Florida needs a source of funding for land acquisition that the Legislature can’t steal. U.S. Sugar is ready and willing to sell land. We need to buy it now.
LOBBYING: If the decision rests with Congress, we can’t sit home and blame them. State officials need to trek to Washington to make them meet their commitment to save America’s Everglades..
If we all get together, we can put Humpty Dumpty together again.
Maggy Hurchalla is a Miami native and a former Martin County commissioner. She served on the Governor’s Commission for a Sustainable South Florida, which developed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.