Palm Beach Post – Also absent on Wednesday were the co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Friends of the Everglades. The group’s President, Alan Farago, said he was not invited. “Perhaps federal and state agencies are waiting for another occasion to thank us,” Farago said.
By Christine Stapleton
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
LOXAHATCHEE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE —
Shortly after Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar stepped off an air-boat on Wednesday and praised a landmark agreement between state and federal agencies to restore the Everglades, he offered his own dire concerns — not only about the Everglades but about conservation efforts throughout the country.
“I think the conservation future of our country is at risk and I will say that to a Republican or Democrat,” Salazar said, adding that the budget cuts proposed by Republicans could be a “death knell” to programs that protect wetlands and conserve water the land. “I am very concerned about a potential U-turn with the progress we have seen in the Everglades.”
Salazar, who has made nine trips to the Everglades since he was appointed 3 1/2 years ago by President Obama, said restoration of the River of Grass is the “highest priority” for the President and himself. However, Salazar said, he still has questions about the state’s commitment to the $880 million plan with a 2025 deadline.
“There has to be a continuous commitment by Florida,” Salazar said.
In October, Scott travelled to Washington to meet with Salazar and other top environmental officials to unveil his own restoration plan. Scott hoped that plan would end more than 20 years of litigation that has cost taxpayers millions of dollars in attorney fees. Scott, who has repeatedly stressed “restoration, not litigation,” hired two high-priced attorneys to help broker the deal.
The agreement they reached broke the deadlock in a 2004 lawsuit filed by the Miccosukee Tribe against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for failing to enforce the Clean Water Act to limit nutrient-laden water flowing into the Everglades.
On July 13, U.S. District Judge Alan Gold, who two years ago blasted federal and state officials for failing to protect the Everglades, gave his permission for the EPA and DEP to move forward with an $880 cleanup.The agreement could also help settle a 1988 lawsuit, which alleges similar failures in restoration efforts.
Under the agreement, the EPA approved permits for construction of several man-made filter marshes, called storm-water treatment areas, which would lower phosphorus levels. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection will monitor and enforce permits and all parties will meet every six months to resolve conflicts. The lawsuit is not over but the agreement allows construction to resume.
“I think the important part to remember is the state is under an enforcement agreement that will last beyond the administration,” said Gail Mitchell, EPA Deputy director for Water Protection in Atlanta. Mitchell, who participated in the negotiations, said federal agencies would ensure restoration continues and deadlines are met until the project is complete — in 2025. “No one can walk away from it.”
With Florida among the most important swing states in the upcoming election, the Administration has repeatedly sent top officials to the state to stress the importance of Everglades restoration. In the last week, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack along with Assistant Secretary of the Army Jo-Ellen Darcy visited Kissimmee to announce $80 million in additional funding for farmers and ranchers who voluntarily store water and preserve wetlands on agricultural land north of Lake Okeechobee. It was Vilsack’s second Everglades-related trip to Florida in a year.
In January, Darcy appeared with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson at the Everglades Coalition Conference on Hutchinson Island in Martin county. In April, Vice President Joe Biden also took an airboat tour of the Everglades and praised progress made on restoration projects in Miami-Dade County.
Noticeably absent from the 45 minute airboat tour and the hour-long public stakeholder meeting on Wednesday were representatives from the two state agencies responsible for restoration: The South Florida Water Management District, the agency overseeing restoration projects, and the Florida DEP, which issues permits and enforces the Clean Water Act on behalf of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The heads of both agencies, District Executive Director Melissa Meeker and DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard, were both appointed by Gov. Scott, a Republican. Scott also appointed six of the District’s nine Governing Board members. Republican Gov. Charlie Crist appointed three others.
Also absent on Wednesday were the co-plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Friends of the Everglades. The group’s President, Alan Farago, said he was not invited.
“Perhaps federal and state agencies are waiting for another occasion to thank us,” Farago said.
As for the Miccosukees, Salazar left via helicopter from the Reserve just before noon and flew directly to a meeting with the tribe.