Water managers declare Everglades nearly clean; the people who live there say not yet

The L-28 Interceptor canal carries polluted water from farm fields and pastures onto Miccosukee wetlands south of Alligator Alley that the tribe hopes to restore. Water sampling by the tribe has detected phosphorus up to 10 times the limit scientists say is needed for healthy marshes.
The L-28 Interceptor canal carries polluted water from farm fields and pastures onto Miccosukee wetlands south of Alligator Alley that the tribe hopes to restore. Water sampling by the tribe has detected phosphorus up to 10 times the limit scientists say is needed for healthy marshes. cjuste@miamiherald.com

For much of the last year, the South Florida Water Management District has circulated a set of maps plotting water quality that it says proves just how clean the Everglades have become, essentially declaring victory in a critical step toward restoring the swamp.

But the Miccosukee Tribe, which has long fought the state over dirty water flushed from farm fields, says the maps, and the district, are not telling the whole story.

Water pumped from massive scrubbing areas remains above the pollution limit that scientists say is needed to keep the Everglades healthy, a detail the tribe says is not indicated on the maps. The district has also changed where it monitors water: the maps displayed side-by-side don’t include the same sampling points. What’s worse, the tribe says, the district stopped sampling water altogether near canals in the heart of the reservation off Alligator Alley, where pollution is seven to 10 times higher than it should be, and cattails — telltale signs of tainted water — sprout across hundreds of acres.

Last month, when the district sent an email to the Department of Justice asking to end the legal decree that for the last quarter century put it under court oversight — and including a district scientist’s statement saying phosphorus limits had been met “with three minor exceptions” — the tribe was flabbergasted.

“It’s offensive to us to say you don’t need any more water treatment,” said Truman “Gene” Duncan, the tribe’s water resource director. He wrote water quality rules for the tribe’s 127 square miles of land, which the tribe adopted in 1997 and set, for the first time anywhere in the state, the now legal standard for phosphorus at 10 parts per billion. The nutrient, a key fertilizer ingredient, can choke native Everglades plant life at higher concentrations.

“They know there’s a problem,’’ Duncan said. “They can’t claim there’s not.”

But the district argues that it is meeting the requirements of the clean-up, which follow a complicated four-part test based on averaging readings across a network of stations, and which were agreed to by state and federal agencies. It stopped sampling near the canals on tribal land because it was part of a research project that ended, spokesman Randy Smith said in an email. The district also includes specific information on monitoring in a three-volume annual report available on its website.

“It is important to note that the federal courts have rejected earlier attempts by the Miccosukee Tribe to remedy water quality,” in nearby conservation areas, he said, which is being addressed in a restoration effort aimed at the western Everglades.

Smith also said that the tribe won’t allow the district on its land to take more samples.

But Duncan says that’s just not true. District scientists sampled tribal land in the past — maps in the district’s environmental monitoring database show numerous sampling points as late as 2006. And no one’s stopping them from doing it again, he said. As for the practice of averaging samples, Duncan likened the method to a kind of shell game.

“If you’re not using the same data points, how can you make the comparison?” he asked. “You’ve got to be intellectually honest about how you do your sampling.”

On a map, the largest of the tribe’s five reservations straddling Alligator Alley looks like an arrow pointing south. Occupied for centuries by Miccosukees who refused to surrender during the Seminole Wars and escaped to the swamp, the reservation was designated after the tribe was formally recognized in 1962. Twenty years later, because the land represented only a fraction of the tribe’s ancestral territory, the government also granted a perpetual lease on 189,000 acres on the adjacent water conservation area. The deal called for the state to protect the land in its natural state, meaning no pollution.

That position has made the tribe a central player in restoration — their lands are at the crossroads of restoration with sugar and sod farms to the north, urban sprawl to the east and west and Everglades National Park to the south.

More importantly, they also have formal legal standing — a position they had to sue to obtain — to step in if they see the state violating the consent decree, which the tribe has done numerous times over the years.

So when the district began asserting last year that 90 percent of the Everglades were clean and meeting “stringent phosphorus standards,” the tribe was dismayed.

Duncan said he routinely reviews the district’s “Weekly STA Performance Summary,” which tracks the results from the state’s vast scrubbing marshes called Stormwater Treatment Areas. He said they tell a different story. In February, less than two weeks after a district attorney wrote to the DOJ, the yearly average of readings showed phosphorus above the limit flowing from all of the state’s billion-dollar STA network — though only barely above it for some. The amount is vastly below what it once was, but the tribe points out that technically, since the state’s pollution permits apply to pumps at the STAs, none technically complies with the consent decree.

In addition, the tribe’s own monitoring continued to show elevated levels in a part of the reservation, called the Triangle, that is wedged between two canals. The area has long been a concern for the tribe.

When he was hired in 1988, Duncan said tribal officials took him out to see it and said, “This is what we want you to fix.” He now worries it won’t get done in his lifetime.

The problem is the canals, the L-28 and the L-28 Interceptor, dump pollution on tribal wetlands. Both were dug in the 1960s as part of the sprawling flood control project aimed at draining the swamps. Part of the L-28 was intended to protect the failed Everglades Jetport, a misguided attempt to put an airport five times bigger than JFK International in the middle of the swamp.

The canals also provide flood control for the 9,000-acre Triangle. That land was originally designated for development, but Duncan says the tribe has instead decided to convert it to marshes. About five years ago, the tribe constructed a weir across the L-28 to prevent over-draining from a massive district pump station farther upstream. Eventually, the tribe plans on filling the canals and removing levees that block the flow of water.

While the L-28 receives much cleaner water from one of the massive stormwater treatment areas, the Interceptor Canal, which is twice as wide and delivers a third of the water entering the conservation area, carries water from farmland and cattle pastures west of the Everglades Agricultural Area. Unlike the EAA, where the district has spent millions to construct the treatment areas, water from the west remains largely untreated.

“We’re voluntarily giving back 9,000 acres to the Everglades,” Duncan said. “No one has ever done that and we’re having trouble getting them to take it. Nine thousand acres. All you’ve got to do is restore it.”

This past December, when Duncan attended the federal and state oversight committee meeting that monitors the federal consent decree setting the 10 parts per billion standard, he worried that the state would continue to push its message that the Everglades were 90 percent clean. The meeting, he said, held in Washington, D.C., at the Interior Department, marked the 20th anniversary of the ruling and was meant to be momentous. Former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell attended.

Duncan said the district scientists presented the maps that they have been showcasing of late: two contrasting images where red dots of pollution lighting up the marshes from decades ago were replaced by green, clean dots over the last few years indicating the success of the massive scrubbing areas. Duncan then circulated his own map.

“It was not well received,” he said.

Jenny Staletovich: 305-376-2109, @jenstaletovich