September 30, 2008

Everglades In Poor Shape As Restoration Slows

The Florida Everglades are in peril, according to a study that found a multibillion-dollar effort to restore the vast wetland is failing. 

The National Research Council warned that degradation of the Everglades could become irreversible if action is slow.

"The Everglades ecosystem is continuing to decline. It's our estimate that we're losing the battle to save this thing," said William Graf, the report's committee chairman and head of the department of geography at the University of South Carolina at Columbia.

The South Florida Water Management District, which oversees restoration for the state, said it agrees with the report's findings, "that restoration progress is hampered by limited federal funding and a complex and lengthy federal planning process."

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP, was originally estimated to cost about $7.8 billion and take 30 years to complete - a price tag that has since ballooned due to rising costs. It was approved by Congress in 2000.

The plan made the federal government and Florida partners. To date, the state has committed more than $2 billion and pushed ahead alone with a few projects. Congress has only appropriated several hundred million dollars.

Lake Okeechobee, the liquid heart of the Everglades, is polluted with phosphorous mostly from fertilizer runoff. Wildlife habitat is disappearing and 67 threatened or endangered species face extreme peril.

The study found that over a million acres are contaminated with mercury.

"Unless near-term progress is achieved on major restoration initiatives, the Everglades will likely face further loss of species and habitat deterioration, which could be difficult or impossible to reverse," the report found.

Meanwhile, the NRC committee lauded Florida for its major land acquisition, including a $1.75 billion proposal to buy some 300 square miles of farmland from U.S. Sugar Corp.

The land has long been a hindrance to water flow. However, much of that land may remain in agriculture, and the committee noted effects of such a deal may be more than ten years away.

Dexter Lehtinen, an attorney who represents the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians living in the Everglades, has long fought for restoration. He believes the restoration has been stuck in changes, talk and not enough action.

In the beginning, many environmentalists supported a potential buyout of U.S. Sugar. The move was announced by Gov. Charlie Crist in June, as a boon for Everglades restoration.

However, Crist said the planned buyout as the savior of the wetlands - "as monumental as the creation of our nation's first national park."

Officials now say only about half the 300 square miles the state would go toward environmental restoration; the rest will remain in agriculture.

"We're biting off more than we can chew rather than chewing what we've got," Lehtinen said. "And that's going to kill the Everglades."

David Guest, an attorney for Earthjustice who has spent decades fighting for Everglades restoration, agreed that the U.S. Sugar deal may cause more delays.
"The CERP was premised on the need to deal with water quality issues" around farms, Guest said, noting that much of that land will now be taken out of agriculture, removing a major obstacle over time.


Image Caption: Lake Okeechobee from space. (NASA)


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