If you care about what’s left of the Everglades, here’s what passes for a victory these days:
The state is moving ahead with plans for a reservoir and a cleansing marsh to handle some of the fertilizer-tainted, algae-spawning deluge that gets dumped from Lake Okeechobee to both coasts every rainy season.
In theory the collected water will be scrubbed and sent south to nourish parched stretches of the Everglades, and ultimately, imperiled Florida Bay.
Take a moment to celebrate, but don’t go wild.
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At 10,500 acres, the reservoir will be relatively small and so deep (23 feet) that some scientists don’t think it can do the job. The design was chosen over better options by the board of the South Florida Water Management District, which under Gov. Rick Scott functions as a policy arm of Big Sugar.
As one example, TCPalm reporters exposed how the water district in 2015 allowed a U.S. Sugar lobbyist named Irene Quincey to “edit” and weaken planned regulations on harmful phosphorous pouring out of Lake O.
Among her contributions to the final draft was deleting the word “enforceable” from three key passages.
So it’s no shock that the water district bowed to the corporate cane growers this year, too. The original reservoir proposal by Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican whose tourism-dependent district gets slimed hard by the green algae blooms, called for a 60,000-acre project.
That would have been big and shallow enough to deal with much of the fouled lake discharges. However, sugar producers didn’t want a larger reservoir because they opposed taking any cane acreage out of production, even if the state paid them for it.
Some of Big Sugar’s subsidized crop grows on land owned by Florida and leased back to the growers. Yet neither lawmakers nor district officials pushed to end those leases so that the tracts could be used for Glades restoration.
The Everglades Foundation and some other groups that had blasted the small-reservoir concept backed off after the state Department of Environment Protection promised strict terms for maintaining safe water quality.
If that sounds encouraging, don’t forget we’re talking about another agency castrated by Scott and the Republican leadership in Tallahassee. The priority of the DEP’s shriveled staff is fast-tracking development permits, not cracking down on polluters.
But let’s say a small reservoir that catches and re-routes Lake Okeechobee’s marathon toilet flushes is better than nothing. The project still must be approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, an often sluggish partner, and also by Congress, which is supposed to fund half of the estimated $1.4 billion tab.
If all that goes smoothly — which would be miraculous — the most optimistic prediction for finishing the reservoir and its 6,500-acre treatment marsh is in eight years.
That’s a long wait, and it’s not as if engineers must invent a daring new concept in drainage. Reservoirs were a crucial feature of the landmark Everglades restoration plan approved by Congress (and well-celebrated) back in 2000.
Nobody ever said that saving the place would be easy. A re-plumbing project so huge, complex and vulnerable to political tides was destined to be a long, hard slog.
Actual progress has occurred. Elevating segments of the Tamiami Trail to free southward water flow was something few of us thought we’d see in our lifetimes. Farther north, new filtering marshes are actually cleaning some fertilizer from farm runoff.
All this happened because smart scientists and dogged bureaucrats overcame maddening hurdles. Some of these good folks are still around, working behind the scenes with bare-bones government budgets.
For them, finishing this new reservoir in eight years will be a steep challenge. Unfortunately, for those whose lives and businesses are upended by seasonal discharges from Lake O, eight years could be a crushing eternity.
In 2017, about 192 billion gallons of nutrient-laden lake water was released down the St. Lucie River toward the Indian River Lagoon and salty estuaries of the Treasure Coast. Another 397 billion gallons went west down the Caloosahatchee to the inshore Gulf of Mexico.
So, yes, building any reservoir is urgent. But even the rosiest forecast means many more seasons of algae eruptions and sea grass die-offs on the east coast, and caustic red tides and fish kills on the west.
Meanwhile Florida Bay will keep struggling, its basins cloudy and feeder creeks starved for fresh water from the mainland. Worsening conditions already threaten the marine industries of the Upper Keys.
In reality, then, the dubiously designed future reservoir is being celebrated only because those who love the Everglades are desperate for anything that resembles a victory — even with a delivery date in the too-distant future.