If we fail the Everglades, we fail Florida’s future

TAKING FLIGHT: American white pelicans at Everglades National Park.
TAKING FLIGHT: American white pelicans at Everglades National Park. AP

On Dec. 6, 1947, President Harry S Truman was in Florida to celebrate the end of a 30-year struggle — and to warn us about the future. “Today we marked the achievement of another great conservation victory,” said Truman in a speech dedicating Everglades National Park.

“The battle for conservation cannot be limited to the winning of new conquests,” he warned. “Like liberty itself, conservation must be fought for unceasingly to protect earlier victories.”

Never have a president’s words of caution — the need to protect earlier victories — been more appropriate than today. Unfortunately, in the decades since that 1947 victory, America’s Everglades is reeling from abuse, neglect and a failure of policy leaders to fully understand the economic and environmental consequences of not restoring and protecting this critical ecosystem.

The Everglades is the water supply for almost 8 million Floridians, and millions of visitors. What was once one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems has seen a dramatic decline in wildlife, sea life and flora.

This started out as the year of good news for America’s Everglades:

▪ Plan A, a science-based plan, was developed to move more water south into the heart of America’s Everglades.

▪ The state had negotiated with U.S. Sugar for a crucial option to buy 46,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee. This land would allow water from the lake to be stored, cleaned and flow south. The date of execution of the option: Oct. 15, 2015.

▪ The passage of Amendment 1 in 2014 assuring that money would available to complete the U.S. Sugar purchase and other projects necessary for Everglades restoration.

Suddenly, without warning, the South Florida Water Management District said, “No.” Voting unanimously, the members of the district board simply tore up the contract with U.S. Sugar, choosing to ignore the facts.

They chose, instead, to say “No” to thousands of people whose homes and businesses are being harmed by discharges of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee because the only place the water can now be dumped is into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and estuaries.

They chose to say “No” to the safety of people living near Lake Okeechobee who must worry about the fragile condition of the dike surrounding the lake. It is imperative that pressure on the dike be relieved by having the ability to move water south. A breach of the dike would cause a Katrina-like disaster in the middle of South Florida.

They chose to say “No” to preventing saltwater intrusion of our fresh water supply.

Restoration of America’s Everglades, with the massive amount of fresh water it will add to the interior of Florida, is the most significant strategic initiative available to us to mitigate even deeper intrusion caused by rising sea levels.

Now what?

The board members tossed out Plan A. What is their plan? What is Plan B?

Everyone who has studied the issues of restoring the Everglades believes land is desperately needed south of Lake Okeechobee. Where will the district find that land? How will the district acquire it?

Last November, 75 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 1. This overwhelming support for Everglades restoration and land acquisition is a clear mandate that we will not tolerate this failure to act. The people of Florida demand that when the state Legislature returns on June 1, it should authorize bonding the proceeds of Amendment One. This has been the practice in state land-acquisition programs since the 1970s. At least $300 million of the proceeds should be allocated to conservation land acquisition and the amount necessary to purchase critical water cleanup and storage sites south of Lake Okeechobee.

As a former governor, it pains me to say this: The Water Management District has failed us. It appears unable to fulfill its responsibilities, especially land acquisition. The state and its federal partner should reconsider the 2000 decision to grant to the now-rudderless Water Management District the authority to purchase land for Everglades restoration and place it in the hands of Everglades National Park’s guardian, the U.S. Department of Interior.

We began the year with great promise for the future of America’s Everglades. We can still end the year fulfilling that promise. Our leaders just need the will to act. Whatever happens, we must heed Truman’s words by continuing to fight “unceasingly to protect earlier victories.”

Bob Graham was a U.S. senator from 1987 to 2005 , and served as Florida’s governor from 1979 to 1987.