After three-and-a-half years of watching from the sidelines while Florida state agencies wrestled over expensive proposals and battled environmentalists in court, U.S. EPA has slapped Florida with new orders aimed at restoring the Everglades.
On Friday, at the behest of a federal judge, EPA issued directives and deadlines aimed at returning the slow-moving waters of the River of Grass to health by 2020. It came in response to a scathing order from U.S. District Judge Alan Gold that demanded EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson appear before him next month and blasted her agency for choosing to "drag its feet" in a "dereliction of duty ... contrary to the Clean Water Act."
Environmentalists say the order promises to break through the impasse that has resulted as the state has pushed for deadline extensions, promised grandiose restoration projects and wrangled over the merits of a billion-dollar land deal that was repeatedly delayed and downsized and has yet to close.
"Getting Region 4 of the EPA to act on something is like trying to steer a water bed that's rolling down a hill, and you can see this in what happened," said David Guest, the Earthjustice attorney who has long litigated for faster Everglades cleanup. "This is a very dramatic change in policy."
The plan released Friday, which the court must still approve, calls on Florida to roughly double the size of its billion-dollar spread of man-made pollution-filtering marshes to more than 100,000 acres. It calls on the state to correct "deficiencies" in its monitoring and reporting of pollution levels.
EPA's order lays out a matrix of deadlines under which the state must purchase land, complete design, obtain permits and finish construction of the filter marshes.
It also endorses the state's controversial land deal with U.S. Sugar Corp., the object of two years of heated public debate and litigation. EPA said the new marshes could be "largely accommodated" with land the state already owns, as well as the 27,000 acres that Gov. Charlie Crist (I) and state water managers have agreed to purchase for $197 million next month.
Everglades Foundation CEO Kirk Fordham cheered the new EPA restoration blueprint for its "ambitious deadline" and for what he characterized as an "emphatic declaration that the U.S. Sugar land acquisition is central to the success of Everglades restoration."
EPA's Acting Region 4 Administrator Stan Meiburg said the order complied with the law but also acknowledged that the federal and state governments "must do more together to restore clean water to the Everglades."
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District, the local agency responsible for Everglades restoration, both issued statements saying EPA's order, which gives the state 60 days to respond with alternative proposals, remains under review.
But the district also said it was "encouraged by the determination's apparent flexibility," particularly for encouraging the state to propose water storage alternatives in certain areas.
Despite spotty but improving performance, the artificial marshes remain the best available weapon for combating phosphorus, the fertilizer constituent that washes off farms and urban areas and represents the primary pollution threat to the Everglades. Phosphorus has triggered soupy algae blooms and caused cattails and exotic weeds to choke out essential native plants in the once 4,000-square-mile marsh, which has been reduced to half its original size, slowly poisoned by farms, urban sprawl and rock mining.
Sugar land deal
EPA's action marks the second major endorsement for Crist's controversial U.S. Sugar land deal in recent weeks.
In another Everglades case, a special master to U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno issued a recommendation saying the state is correct to halt construction of a 25-square-mile reservoir, the largest of its kind in the world, despite having already invested a quarter-billion dollars in the project.
Moreno's special master, John Barkett, sided with Everglades Foundation scientists and other environmentalists who argued that the state's decision was wise and that the reservoir land would be better used as a pollution treatment marsh, given the U.S. Sugar acquisition.
Attorneys for U.S. Sugar's chief rival, Florida Crystals Corp., and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, which lives on land in the Everglades and operates a casino on its outskirts, had argued that halting the reservoir would set back Everglades restoration for decades.
First unveiled by Crist in June 2008, what began as the South Florida Water Management District's shocking $1.75 billion total buyout of the sugar giant was downsized three times, to the purchase of just 27,000 acres of citrus fields and other lands.
Frustrated by the slow progress and second-guessing, Moreno issued an order in March that seemed a death knell to the deal, writing that he was "now uncertain as to what role the downsized land purchase will play in Everglades restoration." But after hearings this summer, Barkett took a decidedly different tack.
"It would be both disappointing and surprising if the State and the United States did not figure out a way to assist the District in truly recreating the River of Grass," Barkett wrote. "Everglades? or Neverglades? At some point, political and business leaders have to implement their commitment to save this Florida and United States ecological treasure; promises just won't do anymore."
Miccosukee attorney Sonia O'Donnell did not return a call for comment.
Fordham, of the Everglades Foundation, said the report and EPA's order last week together marked a sea change in both regulators' and the courts' view of what was best for the ecosystem.
"They're very much aligned in the direction that Everglades restoration now needs to move in," Fordham said. "If we can continue the harmonious relationship between the state of Florida and the federal government, we have an opportunity to really advance key water quality improvements over the next five to seven years."