Some strong leadership would go a long way

EVERGLADES: .A white pelican in the shallows of Snake Bight in Everglades National Park.
EVERGLADES: .A white pelican in the shallows of Snake Bight in Everglades National Park. MIAMI HERALD Staff

Florida’s Everglades are parched, and the folks in Miami and other parts of South Florida are facing water shortages. It’s not a pretty picture. The good news is there’s a big fix and it’s remarkably straightforward. The money is available. Commitments have been made. Legislation has been passed.

So, what’s the hold-up? Leadership. It could come from the Legislature, from the private sector or from the governor’s office. Most likely, it’ll need to come again from the same Floridians who voted 3-1 in November to dedicate almost $1 billion a year to conserving water and land for people and wildlife.

This is why it’s happening: To the north of the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee regularly overflows with water that drains off land as far north as Orlando. That water, loaded with pollutants, flows to the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Chemicals in the water ravage coastal wetlands, destroying the homes and food sources for Florida’s magnificent birds and fish. The water then drains into the ocean.

The solution isn’t a mystery. The idea is to create reservoirs between Lake O and the Everglades plus a large band of wetlands that would act as filters for the polluted water. The clean water that comes out on the other end refills the aquifer that provides drinking water for more than 6 million South Floridians while replenishing the Everglades.

The Florida Everglades is one of America’s natural wonders and one of our most popular recreational playgrounds. It’s a paradise for birders, fishermen, boaters and others who love the outdoors. And it’s a major economic draw for Florida tourism, generating tens of millions of dollars a year. It’s also a unique landmark that helps define Florida.

Anyone who knows Florida’s Everglades will tell you about its birds and the amazing sense of wildness they create. But last year, populations of the elegant tri-colored heron were down 83 percent. Roseate spoonbills, wood storks, Everglades snail kites and Little Blue Herons are also threatened. Those birds truly are what birds have always been — the early-warning systems that tell you about clean water and healthy places for birds and people.

Florida has an option to buy a large swath of sugar cane fields between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. The South Florida Water Management District appears to be taking a pass on that option. There are other lands to be had, and the money to buy them already has been banked.

The message from Big Sugar, which wants a higher price for its land than what it offered to the water district five years ago, is that other Everglades projects should be completed before buying new land. The problem with that self-interested argument from some of the same people responsible for polluting Lake O’s waters is that the happy marriage of money and available land doesn’t come along often, and we’re at one of those rare moments.

Floridians spoke in force just six months ago. An overwhelming 74 percent of state voters approved buying more land for environmental restoration and preservation, specifically including these lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area. Voters said Yes to a constitutional amendment dedicating fees from real-estate sales to help pay for that restoration and preservation.

And this is where leadership matters. The Florida Legislature, meeting in a special session, can’t continue to defy three-quarters of the state’s voters, no matter how much campaign funding they get from the sugar companies.

During the special session, we hope legislators get the message the voters have sent: Appropriate funds for the Everglades, and direct state agencies to get to work building the projects that will put water where it belongs — in the Everglades, not flowing uselessly to the coast.

Time is running out, not only for this opportunity to set land aside for clean water, but for the Everglades itself.

David Yarnold is president and CEO of National Audubon Society.