Biden’s chance to save the Everglades

By The NYT Editorial Board

With passage of the COVID-19 relief bill behind it, the Biden administration will soon offer its encore, one or more big proposals reflecting President Joe Biden’s multitrillion-dollar Build Back Better, which will enlarge government’s role in the U.S. economy. Together, these budget requests will be bigger in dollar terms than the relief bill, will address daunting problems like infrastructure and climate change — and, inevitably, will revive the partisan divide that plagues Washington.

There is, however, one environmentally important project that boasts remarkable bipartisan agreement and has important climate implications. It may be the most ambitious ecosystem recovery project ever, not just in the United States but anywhere, and it has the added virtue of being an act of atonement for past government failures.

The project in question, launched near the end of the Clinton administration, is an effort to restore the biological health of the Florida Everglades. Originally funded at $7.8 billion, the program is now more than 20 years old, and while some progress has been made, it has moved in fits and starts. It is now at a critical point, with several major plans on the cusp of success if the money can be found. Decisions taken in the next few months may well determine whether the Everglades project lives up to its promise of reviving the South Florida ecosystem.

The project is essentially a vast re-plumbing scheme aimed at replicating as nearly as possible the historical flows of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee — flows that a pioneer advocate named Marjory Stoneman Douglas called the River of Grass — that once made South Florida a biological wonderland. These flows slowed to trickle starting in the late 1940s when Congress ordered up a massive flood control project to protect Florida’s booming cities, which looked like a smart idea at the time.

The Army Corps of Engineers responded by draining a half-million acres south of the lake with a vast web of levees, canals and pumping stations — an impressive piece of engineering that flushed Lake Okeechobee’s copious overflows out to sea and away from the cities instead of letting it move slowly and naturally southward, as it had for centuries. This made Florida’s eastern coast safe for development and its midlands safe for agriculture, in particular for the big sugar companies, but it was also an environmental disaster, robbing the Everglades and the fishing grounds of Florida Bay of their traditional sources of fresh water, and nearly killing both.

The restoration scheme approved by Congress in 2000 was as ambitious as the original flood control project, only its purpose was to reclaim the water and steer it southward. Congress further stipulated that the plan’s overarching goal would be the “restoration, preservation and protection of the South Florida ecosystem” and that nature — not the cities, the developers or the farmers and growers — would have first claim on the newly captured water.

Congress agreed to pay for half the project, Florida the other half. There were problems. The bill identified 68 projects, some of marginal value and all needing separate authorization, which delayed the funding. There was squabbling among the main players, including the state and the Army Corps of Engineers, which insisted on endless studies. Most important, the enthusiasm for restoration that was so palpable in President Bill Clinton’s White House and Interior Department disappeared under President George W. Bush, and it was never fully recaptured, even under President Barack Obama. One result is that Florida has spent close to $5 billion on the project, Washington only $2 billion.

There have been notable achievements nonetheless. One project, which antedates the Clinton scheme, has restored the flow of the Kissimmee River north of Lake Okeechobee to its natural contours before the Corps turned it into a ditch, replenishing 20,000 acres of wetlands in the river’s floodplain and removing harmful nutrients before it empties into the lake.

Another project has reclaimed more than than 50,000 acres of wetlands north and west of the park so as to restore the sheet flow of water that has been tied up in the canals. Perhaps the most dramatic success so far has been the construction of two bridges along the Tamiami Trail, which runs east and west along the top of the park, that have allowed water hitherto blocked by the highway to flow into the park.

But there is much more to be done, and two vital projects in particular await prompt and robust funding. Both lie at the core of the effort to restore sheet flow. One is a giant, 10,000-acre reservoir just south of Lake Okeechobee that is designed to store and treat water before moving it south. The other is a third breach of the Tamiami Trail, not a bridge this time but a giant culvert under the road.

The main force behind restoration has always been a desire to save the swamp, America’s greatest subtropical wilderness, and the bird and animal life that lives there. But as Marco Rubio, who has become the national park’s most vigorous champion in the Senate, said in a letter to Biden earlier this month, a healthy Everglades has other vital uses as well. It is a magnet for tourists drawn to Florida’s environmental assets and thus provides permanent jobs apart from those created by the restoration projects. Its aquifers furnish drinking water for millions of Florida’s residents. It protects against saltwater intrusion caused by slowly rising sea levels, and its mangroves absorb and store carbon dioxide.

Rubio got every member of the Florida congressional delegation to sign on to his letter. Most of them probably meant it. Although developers will always be nipping at the edges, the Everglades is a mom-and-apple pie issue in Florida nowadays. As the Miami Herald writer, novelist and environmentalist Carl Hiaasen said earlier this month in his farewell column, “Billions are being spent trying to save the besieged River of Grass, and every ambitious candidate — Democrat or Republican — waxes rapturously about it. A few of them might actually be sincere, but all of them know how to read the polls.”

Rubio asked Biden for $725 million this year to jump-start the big projects. Environmental groups like the Everglades Foundation want a four-year commitment of close to $3 billion, about equal to the Army Corps of Engineers’ estimates of what it will take to keep restoration efforts on track for the next decade. Either way, these numbers would help Washington finally honor its original pledge. They represent a low-cost but vital investment in the natural world that Biden and his environmental team should find easy to make.

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