Negotiators are on the verge of a major agreement that would commit Florida to $890?million more for Everglades cleanup.
By CURTIS MORGAN
Peace may finally be at hand in the decades-long Everglades dirty-water war.
Eight months after Gov. Rick Scott flew to Washington to extend a political olive branch and personally pitch Florida’s latest plan for stopping the flow of polluted farm, ranch and yard runoff into the Everglades, state and federal negotiators are on the verge of an accord expected to be hailed by both sides as a major milestone.
A settlement crafted with the goal of resolving two protracted and paralyzing federal lawsuits — one goes back almost a quarter century, the other eight years — could be soon finalized, possibly within the month, according to officials on both sides of the confidential negotiations.
The agreement would commit Florida to a significantly expanded slate of Everglades restoration projects pegged at an estimated $890 million. Still, that’s a considerably smaller price tag than a $1.5?billion plan drawn up by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that a Miami federal judge has threatened to impose.
Most key technical issues — such as the size of additional artificial marshes used to scrub dirty, nutrient-laced storm runoff that has poisoned vast swaths of the Everglades — have been largely sorted out. But both sides cautioned the deal could still be delayed as negotiators work through the nuts and bolts of rolling out, implementing and enforcing a complex and likely controversial agreement.
Environmental groups and sugar growers have heard increasingly encouraging reports from negotiators over the past few months, though they have not been briefed on key details. But they agree the new cleanup blueprint that emerges will stand as a landmark in the costly, contentious legal and political battles to revive the struggling, shrunken River of Grass.
“It would be huge for everyone,’’ said Gaston Cantens, a vice president for Florida Crystals, one of the region’s largest sugar growers. “For a business, whenever you can have stability and certainty, then you can make long-term plans with confidence.’’
Environmentalists are reserving judgment, with some bracing for a deal they fear will be a compromise that might fall short of providing the Glades the pristine fresh water it needs and will push cleanup deadlines, already repeatedly delayed, back by years.
David Guest, an attorney for EarthJustice who represents several environmental groups in a 24-year-old lawsuit brought by the federal government that first forced Florida to deal with Glades pollution, said he has heard enough about the framework of the deal to know he’ll find plenty to question.
But even Guest acknowledges, “It’s absolutely going to be progress, there is no doubt about that.”
The South Florida Water Management District, which oversees restoration projects for the state, responded to questions with a statement, saying the state plan was “scientifically sound, economically feasible and would bring about long-term protection for America’s Everglades.’’
“We’ve had productive dialogue with our federal partners and have made significant progress toward an agreed-upon approach. However, there are some outstanding issues that are important to Florida.” For both the Obama and Scott administrations, finalizing a major Everglades deal would represent a political win and a rare example of bipartisan cooperation. It would be particularly notable for the governor, a tea party-backed, anti-regulation Republican healthcare executive who infuriated environmentalists in his first year in office by slashing environmental programs and gutting much of the state’s grown management oversight.
With the state facing the threat that U.S. District Judge Alan Gold would impose the $1.5 billion EPA cleanup plan on the state, Scott last October flew to Washington to pitch Florida’s alternative plan, meeting with high-ranking White House officials, including Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.
He has continued campaigning since, in meetings and letters, including a Feb. 1 letter to President Barack Obama discussing encouraging settlement talks and stressing a message repeated in a state court brief filed this month requesting more time for negotiations: that the state’s time and taxpayer’s money would be better spent on projects than “pointless, expensive and time-consuming litigation.’’
In an April 5 response to Scott, EPA administrator Jackson echoed the upbeat tone, noting “we share a common desire to take advantage of the opportunity in front of us for quick, historic progress towards clean water for the Everglades.’’
Though four federal agencies initially found the state’s plan inadequate, the state has made a number of tweaks and additions during negotiations, officials said, adding some 8,400 more acres of treatment marshes — still far less than the 42,000 additional acres the EPA had proposed. In addition, the state plan calls for expanded water storage in a string of new “flow equalization basins’’ intended to keep the marshes more effective by limiting flooding or damaging dry-downs.
To save money, land swaps are being considered and water managers also intend to convert a massive reservoir that water managers halted two years and $272 million into construction in 2008 would be turned into one of new, shallower basins.
The nearly $900 million in projects would add to the $1.8 billion the state has already spent to construct a 45,000 acres of existing marshes, with an additional 11,000 acres scheduled to come online later this year. But that massive network hasn’t been enough to meet the super-low standards needed to protect the sensitive Glades ecosystem from phosphorous, a common fertilizer ingredient that drains off farms and yards with every rainstorm. It fuels the spread of cat tails and other exotics that crowd out native plants.
Though Scott has earned praise from some environmentalists, Guest, the EarthJustice attorney, isn’t among them, arguing the governor didn’t lead so much as he was pushed by courtroom defeats and mounting pressure from two federal judges.
Gold, in a 2004 suit brought by the Miccosukee Tribe and the environmental group Friends of the Everglades, has issued a series of rulings blasting the state and federal agencies for “glacial delay’’ and repeatedly failing to enforce water-pollution standards tough enough to protect the Everglades. In 2010, he ordered the EPA to draw up a cleanup plan that water managers said they couldn’t afford.
U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, who oversees the original 1988 cleanup suit by the federal government, has expressed similar frustrations and urged both sides to come up with a viable plan.
Barbara Miedema, vice president of the Belle Glade-based Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, said she expects it will still take a while to nail down the deal. With multiple federal and state agencies, more than a half-dozen environmental groups, the Miccosukee Tribe and two federal judges involved, there are numerous legal, practical and political hurdles to clear, she said.
“We hear they are close, but we have been hearing they are close for months,’’ she said. “A lot of signs say it’s likely. I’m not betting on it.’’