Make fixing the Everglades a priority

Water managers fear the 143-mile-long dike around Lake Okeechobee could fail if too much water builds up in the lake.
Water managers fear the 143-mile-long dike around Lake Okeechobee could fail if too much water builds up in the lake. AP

The reopening of the flood gates around Lake Okeechobee last week underlined the perilous state of South Florida’s vulnerable water system. Water managers were forced to act because recent heavy rains produced dangerous water levels in the lake and around nearby communities.

This is the perennial problem of Lake Okeechobee. Unusual amounts of rainfall increase pressure on the dikes that could lead to a disaster. “Our main purpose right now is public safety,” said Jim Jeffords, Operations Division Chief for the Jacksonville office of the Corps of Engineers, explaining the latest discharge.

It comes at a high cost, however. The discharge released millions of gallons of polluted water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, further degrading estuaries on Florida’s Atlantic and Gulf Coasts and causing incalculable damage along the coastal areas on both sides of the Florida peninsula.

There has to be a way out of this recurring environmental nightmare — and there is: Buy more land south of the lake so that discharges can be sent in that direction. Build reservoirs to hold the water and reduce pollution naturally. Then send it farther south to Florida Bay, which desperately needs fresh water. This, in a nutshell, is what Everglades restoration is all about.

Sounds easy enough, but it isn’t, for two reasons: money and politics.

Both Congress and the Florida Legislature have to pitch in with funding. It’s a 50/50 proposition with the goal of buying land, removing barriers so that water can be stored in reservoirs to remove pollutants, then sent into the Everglades. This pumps clean, restorative waters into the River of Grass — a drinking source for 8 million people in this part of the state — and eliminates the need to pollute rivers east and west of the lake.

Among the steps that must be taken is passage of a new water-development bill in Congress to authorize a $2 billion engineering project to collect and channel water around the lake into the Everglades. The plan has bipartisan support from the Florida delegation, including Sen. Bill Nelson and Sen. Marco Rubio, and the blessing of the Corps of Engineers. This is a must-pass priority for Florida.

The second item of this vital project is money to buy the land, which could come from the state Legislature as part of a deal to carve out at least $200 million a year for the next 20 years from Amendment 1 funding.

Here’s where the politics comes in. Amendment 1 was designed for conserving new land. Instead, the Legislature has diverted much of the money to cover salaries, fighting wildfires, providing insurance and controlling pollution on private land. This year, lawmakers have decided to set aside some of the funds for Everglades restoration — but to use the bulk of the money generated by Amendment 1 for purposes barely connected to land buying and conservation.

This trade-off has divided the environmental community. We don’t like splitting the baby, either. Everglades restoration should be the priority. But buying fragile lands and preserving springs can’t constantly run a distant second. The promises of Amendment 1 must be realized.

Congress should approve money to restore the Everglades, and the Legislature should approve a plan to allocate a minimum of $200 million a year to complement federal funding.

We’ve been talking about Everglades restoration, seemingly, forever. Now is the time to get it done.