President George W. Bush and Florida Governor Jeb Bush on January 10 signed an agreement ensuring that water captured under a $7.8 million Everglades restoration program will be allocated primarily for ecosystem purposes.
The program was approved by Congress during the summer of 2000 to undo many of the effects of prior federal programs. Most notably, Congress in the 1950s directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to drain a portion of the Everglades to accommodate Florida’s growing South Florida population and agricultural interests.
Congressional approval for the new program was assured only after the federal government agreed to cooperate with Florida state officials in determining the specific applications for the federal funds. The state of Florida and the federal government agreed to split the costs of the program and to work together in meeting their respective goals. On December 28, 2001, the Army Corps announced a plan that would serve as a broad guide for the program but would grant Florida flexibility in implementing the details.
Flexible, or permissive?
Environmental activist groups immediately denounced the Army Corps plan as too permissive and a “smokescreen” for Florida’s alleged future development plans.
“This is a joke,” said Bradford Sewell, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They’re basically saying, let’s keep everything the way it’s been done in the past. That’s what destroyed the Everglades in the first place.”
“A close examination of the project reveals that most of it is designed to provide more water for urban expansion and agriculture,” added David Guest, head of EarthJustice’s Tallahassee office. “Saving the Everglades is an afterthought.”
Despite the attacks from anti-market activists, Army Corps engineers expressed confidence their guidance would create ample safeguards for the protected wetlands. “I’m sure plenty of groups are going to zero in on something they don’t like,” said Stuart Appelbaum, the Corps official in charge of the program. “When you have something this extraordinarily complicated with this many stakeholders, that’s what you’d expect.”
A January 3, 2002 Washington Post house editorial recognized the difficulties in formulating a balanced plan. “This is not a situation in which federal officials can simply run roughshod over local interests. Florida, after all, is footing half the bill for the $8 billion project. State policymakers have pledged to revive the Everglades ecosystem; federal ones have acknowledged the importance of local water needs.”
Binding and enforceable
The Army Corps’ confidence in Florida’s commitment to restoring Everglades ecosystems as well as meeting its residents’ water needs was vindicated by the January 10 agreement signed by President and Governor Bush. In the agreement, Governor Bush pledged that restoring Everglades ecosystems would be the first priority of the state’s mission, with the needs of farmers and homeowners being considered only after adequate water for Everglades ecosystems had been assured.
“This is an important project,” commented Governor Bush. “It will show that what was harmed by man can be restored by man.”
Despite their previous misgivings, many activist groups expressed pleasure at the January 10 agreement. Of particular importance was the binding and enforceable nature of the agreement.
“It has the teeth we wanted,” said Sean McMahon, a lobbyist for the National Audubon Society.
Everglades National Park Superintendent Maureen Finnerty was equally satisfied with the agreement. “Today’s agreement is an important step in restoring Everglades National Park,” she said. “It will ensure that the entire Everglades ecosystem receives the water needed to restore the biological abundance and diversity for which this special place is so universally admired.”