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Lay of the Land

Everglades Restoration | Green Campaigns | W Watch | Biological Diversity | Bold Strokes | Contaminated Waterways | Safe SUV Myth | Exxon Valdez | Renewable Energy Mitigation Program | Updates

Who Gets the Water?

A faulty everglades plan pits alligators and pelicans against developers.

By Kim Todd

Flying over the everglades, passengers might expect to see a flock of great egrets or a twisted mangrove forest. Instead, they look down on an area the mining industry calls the "Lake Belt," a blasted landscape of pits, railroad tracks, and dynamited rock.

"It’s destruction beyond belief," says Barbara Lange, everglades co-chair for the Sierra Club’s Florida Chapter. "There are huge, rectangular holes that don’t look like lakes at all."

The limestone mined here supplies concrete for roads and sidewalks to support south Florida’s booming population. More mines scheduled over the next several decades will eat up an additional 15,000 acres of wetlands. The deep pits may drain water from an already thirsty ecosystem and expose underground drinking-water supplies to contaminants such as giardia and cryptosporidium. But what frustrates Lange most is that mines like these are not just another environmental hazard.

They are part of the everglades restoration plan.

After Congress approved the $8 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in 2000, half funded by the federal government and half by the state, both President George W. Bush and Florida governor Jeb Bush embraced it as the centerpiece of their environmental agendas. With an alligator at his feet and his brother by his side, in 2001 President Bush lauded the plan and called the everglades a "beautiful slice of heaven." He points to the restoration as evidence that his administration is not completely ignoring the environment; the governor basks in the same green glow, while showing Florida business owners that he can bring $4 billion in federal funds to the state. The brothers have linked themselves to the everglades so often that Representative Mark Foley (R-Fla.) declared, "The River of Grass is Bush country."

The everglades certainly need restoring: Flood control and irrigation have left what remains unpaved in desperate need of clean water. But the restoration plan–with its aquifer storage wells, mining pits, and rebuilt canals–is looking more and more like a water delivery system for cities and suburbs.

When selling the plan to Congress, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers promised that 80 percent of the water would go the ecosystem. That language disappeared from draft regulations, leaving wildlife to compete with developers for water. The rules also lack binding interim goals to gauge whether plants and animals are benefiting. As written, the draft gives scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Park Services little influence over the project.

Other scientists may also be edged out. Currently, an independent team from the National Academy of Sciences reviews technical aspects of the plan. But the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, a group with the state’s development interests at heart, is debating how to get rid of that panel and replace it with one more to its liking.

And then there’s the mining. The Corps of Engineers envisions that in 33 years two mining pits will be turned into water storage tanks for the everglades, at a cost to taxpayers of $1 billion. In response to this wetlands destruction disguised as restoration, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups are suing the Corps for approving the mining permits without taking into account effects on water quality and wildlife, including the endangered wood stork.

All eyes are on the restoration plan, the most expensive in the nation’s history. "If it succeeds, it provides a model for the rest of the country," says Sierra Club regional representative Frank Jackalone. "If it is corrupted, states around the country are going to try to corrupt money for restoration in the same way."

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