Cyril T. Zaneski | April 1, 2001 | 0 Comments

Natural wonder

floridians spent most of the 20th century shriveling up the Everglades, the shallow grassy river that cuts a wide swath through much of the southern half of their peninsula. The goal was to turn those marshy prairies into high, dry real estate, the richest farmland in the world.

And with help from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and American taxpayers, they achieved a stunning success.

The Corps' mid-century drainage project, an engineering marvel, managed to dry up half the Everglades for farming and suburban development. But the project inadvertently left the remaining wetlands in lousy shape. They can no longer support the tropical flora and fauna that made South Florida a biological jewel. By some estimates, 95 percent or more of the populations of brightly plumed wading birds that once made homes in the Everglades and 68 types of plants and animals in the region are now listed among the nation's endangered and threatened species. A few, like the Cape Sable seaside sparrow and the Florida panther, are teetering on the brink of extinction. But what grabbed the attention of the farmers and developers who form the backbone of the region's economy is this: The Everglades wetlands are no longer capable of soaking up superabundant summer rains for later delivery to a booming human population and thirsty crops of vegetables and sugar cane.

So Floridians turned again to their old federal partners and found them willing to help with a different mission. Working side-by-side and splitting costs along the way, federal and state officials crafted plans for the world's largest ecological rescue mission, which will also serve as an urban and agricultural water project. The Everglades restoration is expected to cost $7.8 billion over 36 years and then about $180 million a year to maintain. Under a landmark deal approved overwhelmingly last year by Congress and the Florida Legislature, the partners will divide project costs equally forever.

Politicians, ecologists and engineers all around the world are keeping an eye on what happens in South Florida. It is, first, the world's most ambitious ecosystem restoration, an attempt to deal in a holistic way with environmental problems of an entire landscape of 18,000 square miles.
Second, the project is a test of how federal, state, tribal and local governments can work together and with multiple competing interests in the private sector. There are more than two dozen government entities involved in the Everglades project. They are following a broad restoration plan agreed upon by a coalition of competing South Florida interests-tourism promoters, environmentalists, limestone mining companies, business leaders, the sugar industry, farmers and urban utilities.

Tipping Canoe

"The Everglades project is like a canoe," observes Terrence "Rock" Salt, a retired Army Corps colonel who now serves as executive director of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, the intergovernmental group coordinating the project. "You get one guy standing up, and everybody goes over."

South Florida's canoe always seems on the verge of a spill. Interest groups and government agencies have sued each other, battled in ugly election campaigns and regularly exchanged harsh words in public about the Everglades campaign over the years. The current cleanup effort got shoved forward by a lawsuit. In 1988, a brash-acting U.S. attorney named Dexter Lehtinen filed suit against the state of Florida for allowing polluted water to flow into the Everglades from farmland. The legal war cost federal and state taxpayers $7 million in legal fees and spawned another 39 related lawsuits before the state cried "uncle" and agreed to launch a cleanup in 1991.

But that was hardly the end of the battle. "It's hard to go a week in South Florida without somebody throwing a grenade," says one federal official involved in the Everglades restoration. The Miccosukee Indians, whose reservation is inside Everglades National Park, have fought the National Park Service in federal court and in Congress over the tribe's plans to expand its housing. The Miccosukees, environmentalists, the Army Corps and the state are embroiled in a complicated triple lawsuit in federal court over management of water in the habitat of the Cape Sable seaside sparrow.

The loudest and nastiest fight took place in 1996, when environmentalists and the sugar industry waged a $38 million battle over a referendum on a proposed penny-a-pound tax on Florida sugar to help fund the Everglades cleanup. Sugar won the bitter fight-the most expensive in the state's history. It was impossible in the summer and fall of 1996 for anyone in Florida to watch a half hour of television without seeing three or four advertisements on the sugar tax campaign. "There's an awful lot of scar tissue around this issue," says Bob Dawson, a former top official in the Corps who now works as a Washington lobbyist on the Everglades project for South Florida agricultural interests, the sugar industry and urban utilities. "It's very difficult to get people to trust each other."

Yet somehow, the Everglades project stayed afloat. The warring parties managed to agree on enough to persuade Congress that the restoration would not dissolve into a series of lawsuits. "You've got to give credit to all those people who put down their machetes and reached across the table to shake hands with their enemies," says J. Allison DeFoor, former environmental policy adviser to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "By the time we got to Washington last year, we had everybody from Big Sugar to the enviros holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya'-sometimes through gritted teeth." In South Florida, the actual day-to-day work of planning the restoration has been smoother than many expected because the two lead agencies, the Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, have been working together for a half century. The district is a massive engineering agency with more than 1,700 employees who manage water supplies and operate a flood control system built by the Corps for 16 counties from Orlando in central Florida to Key West. Though the Corps has worked closely with the district in the past, the Everglades project marks the first time that the agency has opened up its planning to the public. Traditionally, the Corps designed major projects behind closed doors and held token public hearings after the work had been completed. The Everglades project, by contrast, was drawn up in full public view on the Internet. Between 1996 and 1999, the Corps posted proposed plans on a Web site devoted to the restoration, accepted comments from the public and cooperating groups of scientists and engineers, and then revised its plan based on the comments.

"What you're seeing in South Florida is a true bottom-up effort," Salt says. "Government-in this case, the Corps-is really taking its cues from a process driven by the public."

Water, Water Everywhere

The public is going to have to stay involved. Though the restoration has been authorized, it will unfold over nearly four decades in a series of 68 engineering projects. The ultimate goal is to restore about 2.4 million acres of wetlands, but it also aims to provide water for farms and the human population. The Corps and the water district each will have about 150 employees working on the restoration. They'll keep 15 to 20 projects going at a time, while a special interagency oversight group tries to make sure that the work of individual project teams conforms to the overall restoration goals, says Stuart Applebaum, the chief of ecosystem restoration for the Corps' Jacksonville District.

"This is like going to the moon in the 1960s," Applebaum says. "While this project is not as complex as the space program in its heyday, the restoration technically presents just as big a challenge. Nobody has ever done anything like this before."

If the idea of spending $7.8 billion on the restoration sounds stunning, consider this: The project authorized last fall is only part of a still larger ecological restoration and pollution cleanup that stretches beyond the Everglades itself. In all, the effort to restore South Florida's environment is expected to cost $14.8 billion, with the federal government's share reaching $6.5 billion and the rest coming from state and local sources. Along with the Everglades endeavor, the South Florida restoration includes many other projects. The biggest are a state plan to cleanse water flowing into the Everglades from farmland, which will probably cost more than $1 billion, and the $414 million restoration of the Kissimmee River, which snakes along 40 miles between Orlando and Lake Okeechobee. The Kissimmee restoration is actually an undoing of a Corps project that turned the river into a straight ditch between 1962 and 1971, causing severe water pollution problems and destroying about 35,000 acres of wetlands.

The goals of the Everglades restoration flow from the work of business leaders, tourism promoters, environmentalists and farmers on the 49-member Governor's Commission for a Sustainable South Florida. Appointed by the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, the commission members worked from 1995 to 1999 to reach consensus on 14 major reports outlining restoration goals.

This consensus did not come easily. An environmentalist referred to one of the sugar industry representatives as a "corporate felon," recalls Richard Pettigrew, a former state senator and House speaker who chaired the commission. "At first, many of these longtime foes were afraid to break up into committees to identify issues we should deal with," Pettigrew says. "Nobody wanted to give up anything. The utility rep from Palm Beach County, for example, didn't want to talk about any solution that didn't guarantee him free, unlimited access to water."

Pettigrew allowed feuding commission members to pick their committees. He also made sure each meeting included a social gathering in the evening where members could bond over drinks. "Eventually, we began to understand the real problems that people had, rather than just the rhetoric," Pettigrew says. "And we stayed out of that sugar tax fight, even though some people were killing each other over it."

The commission managed by the fall of 1996 to complete a report outlining restoration goals. These goals made their way into the federal Water Resources Development Act of 1996 and set the stage for the restoration. The report, like all those adopted by the commission between 1994 and 1999, was passed by a unanimous vote.

The key to the commission's success and to calming the combatants concerned about access to water was this: A restoration of the Everglades would be more than an environmental project, it would also increase the water supply for everyone.

Water is the major issue in South Florida, even though it is one of the wettest places in the country. The region gets about 60 inches of rain a year. Most of the water, however, falls during summer thunderstorms and quickly drains into coastal estuaries through a network of more than 1,000 miles of canals built by the Corps and the state over the last 100 years. The restoration project's major goal is to stop that rapid loss of water by capturing most of it in hundreds of deep wells and a network of new reservoirs that will be built on farmland and abandoned limestone mining pits at the edge of the Everglades. The Corps calls the concept "enlarging the pie."

"We fashioned a win-win situation," Pettigrew says. The sugar industry reluctantly agreed to sell at least 50,000 acres of farmland to the government for reservoirs in return for the assurance that farmers would have water in the long term. Without such a deal, the farmers feared, the growing urban areas and their growing power at the ballot box eventually would start beating agriculture in political battles and suck dry existing water supplies. Environmentalists, meanwhile, agreed to share water because the ultimate loser in a future water war would be the Everglades. The bottom line, Pettigrew says: "We never wavered in our central goal: To make sure the Everglades was restored-and restored to the highest possible level."

Restudy, then Restore

The restoration plan is largely fashioned after a state plan drawn up in the early 1980s under former Democratic Florida governor and now U.S. Sen. Bob Graham. The old state "Save Our Everglades" program got a new head of steam in 1993 when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt took an interest in getting the Clinton administration involved. By June of that year, the federal task force-with officials from about a half dozen agencies involved-was holding its first meeting.

For what was to become a momentous undertaking, the restoration effort was at first known humbly as "the restudy." The name reflected the fact that the project was actually a rethinking of the Central and Southern Florida Project, a massive drainage project that the Corps designed in 1947 and began building after Congress authorized its construction in 1948. The project expanded and improved a network of drainage ditches begun by the state early in the century and added many more. The Corps laced South Florida with about 1,000 miles of canals and cut the heart of the Everglades with levees that turned the grassy riverbed into three major reservoirs and a 700,000-acre agricultural area.

The Army Corps' work is an engineering marvel that achieved its goals of opening up vast tracts of land for farming and development. But the project did severe damage to the environment. The number of wading birds dropped dramatically. Everglades National Park, dedicated in 1947 to preserve the region's biological wealth of plants and animals, was degraded as drainage projects beyond the park's boundaries dried up its marshes to the peril of its flora and fauna. Florida Bay suffered devastating algal blooms that smothered its marine life.

And the region's human population-which has boomed from 500,000 when the Corps designed the system to more than 6 million today-began to suffer, too. Residents have endured frequent water shortages and intrusions of salty seawater into depleted freshwater aquifers, the sole source of the region's drinking water. Devastating wildfires have burned longer and hotter in the dried-out edges of the Everglades, polluting the air over cities and suburbs near the coast.

Fashioning the restoration as a restudy enabled the Corps to tap into a fat federal purse for general construction. If it had begun as a restoration study, it would have been forced to draw from the Corps' threadbare "general investigations" account. Salt, who headed the Corps' Jacksonville District from 1991 to 1994, and his successor, the now-retired Col. Terry Rice, "pushed the envelope" to get restoration efforts going, Rice says. It was Salt who oversaw the start of the Kissimmee project and came up with a broad plan for extending the restoration effort into the larger Everglades. Rice, who served from 1994 to 1997, challenged the Governor's Commission for a Sustainable South Florida to ask for a full restoration. "Give me a plan and we will implement it," he recalls telling them. The commission members, accustomed to working with the slow-moving Corps bureaucracy of old, found that hard to believe.

Rice understood why commission members were skeptical at first. They were accustomed to being told what couldn't be done, and so was the Corps. "A lot of times, I think we let lawyers run our agencies, and that's a mistake," says Rice, now a professor at Florida International University and a consultant to the Miccosukee Tribe. "I would tell my lawyer: This is what I want to do. Tell me if it's illegal or not.' "

The commission accepted Rice's challenge. They gave him a set of goals, which were then written into the 1996 Water Resources Development Act to guide restoration planning. The bill expanded the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force to include state, local and tribal representatives and authorized it to coordinate the project.

Conflicting Voices

Created in 1993 by an executive order, the task force originally included only representatives of five federal agencies. State and local governments initially were excluded because the 1972 Federal Advisory Committee Act prohibited such cooperation. That barrier was lifted in 1995, when Congress eliminated some of the law's restrictions as part of the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act. The 14-member task force now coordinates the efforts of 13 federal and seven Florida agencies, two Indian tribes, 16 counties and dozens of cities and towns.

In practice, however, the task force has little control over the agencies whose efforts it is supposed to coordinate. The agencies receive their authority-and their funding-from the legislative bodies that oversee them, Salt notes. So the task force must try to build consensus while leaving untouched the individual responsibilities of its members. "While it was framed as a partnership, each side has its own way of doing business," Salt says. "The state never contemplated giving up any sovereign rights in this process. . . . They're not doing it the way the feds do it, but that's a good thing, not a bad thing."

But state officials have grumbled openly about federal oversight of the project. One sore point is that the General Accounting Office has repeatedly criticized the task force for failing to operate more like a federal agency and to develop strategic plans for buying land. Task force proponents say such criticism would only make sense if the organization had control over its member agencies' budgets.

"There is a perception that the task force is a governing body, a shadow government," says Ernie Barnett, Florida's director of Ecosystem Planning and Coordination and the chairman of the task force's intergovernmental working group. "Somehow, the people in Washington got the idea that the task force has some oversight over Florida's land-acquisition process." The task force also has been unable to settle disputes among federal agencies. "Too often, federal agencies have conflicting voices and visions," Barnett says. "When you have a state-federal partnership, you have to speak with one state voice and reflect a single vision. It's easy for us, because the governor settles disputes. But when there are federal disputes, that's when the wheels come off."

The effort to save the Cape Sable seaside sparrow is such an example. The National Park Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service have been involved in a dispute with the Army Corps for years over water management practices that federal biologists say have pushed the sparrow to the brink of extinction. Three lawsuits have been filed in the matter, which is now before a federal judge in Miami. "The sparrow will make it only because God is helping," Barnett says. "The weather has cooperated. The agencies have not."

The task force works best when there are well-defined state and federal roles, Barnett says. It has done best in carrying out state and federal mandates. For example, Barnett says, it did well in setting priorities for spending $275 million set aside by Congress in 1996 for restoration efforts.

At times, the working relationships formed by members of the task force enable them to cut through red tape. For example, the task force enabled the Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to strike a compromise on regulations that will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in upcoming tests of the use of deep wells for storing water for the restoration project, Salt says. "Normally, the task of working through state and federal regulatory frameworks is too daunting," Salt says. "But because we had this task force, we were able to work together and come up with a way to help." Despite all of its complications, the restoration project has probably put Florida in a better position than most states for tackling monster issues, says Dawson, a former top administrator in the Army Corps who lobbies in Washington on behalf of South Florida utilities and agriculture. "The key is that they've developed a balancing act and it's going to be a real safety net for South Florida," Dawson says. "The mechanism they've developed for sharing water is the kind of mechanism that might have helped people in California with their power crisis. But they just rolled the dice there on [a possible] power shortage and the environment is going to get hurt."

Dawson says the South Florida model of building consensus will be copied elsewhere. "I think it's going to be a harbinger of things to come in other parts of the country. The emphasis is on ecosystem restoration that is tied to vital interests of all the players," he says. "If people don't learn to cooperate, it's not going to work."

Florida map
The $7.8 billion restoration effort aims to let water flow again in the heart of the Everglades. Left: The broad river bed before drainage projects began in the late 1800s. Center: The existing network of canals that helped turn half of the old river into farmland and suburbs. Right: The restoration envisioned by project planners.

Cyril T. Zaneski is a correspondent at National Journal News Service.