So, Are We For or Against the Everglades Reservoir?

This question, swirling around Everglades policy circles all winter, touched off a string of debate-club arguments that left everyone confused and divided. Which is exactly what it was supposed to do.

St. Lucie Sunrise. Photo by Kristof Reuther.

It’s a dishonest question, asked mostly by people who don’t really care whether the reservoir delivers meaningful relief to the Everglades or the impacted fisheries. If you do care, you can’t answer yes or no without knowing what we're gettinghow much clean water will go to Florida Bay, how much dirty water will be kept out of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie?

No one really knows. If the reservoir can deliver the performance engineers at the South Florida Water Management District say it will, this project is a clear win for the estuaries and the Everglades.

The problem is, scientists say it can't. An independent analysis found too little treatment to clean the promised volume of water. Treatment means land. If they're right, the only solution--apart from adding more land for treatment--is to send either less water south or dirtier water south. The project couldn't hit water volume and water quality targets, so we'd have to choose one or the otherThe first option dumps more discharges into the rivers. The second pollutes the Everglades. Take your pick.

In light of that analysis--and the project's price tag--we asked for assurance that the government will make it right if the reservoir doesn't work as promised. Step back for a moment and think about how ridiculous it is to even consider signing a $2 billion contract without confidence that we’ll get what we paid for, or without spelling out what happens if we don’t.

Don't worry, we were told, Florida DEP pledged "additional actions" if the project violates water quality standards. Could those actions include sending less water south? Choosing to cut volume--and let discharges destroy the estuaries--to avoid polluting the Everglades? Yup.

In fact, they have to. Last week SFWMD Governing Board member James Moran (who nominated himself to become the next chairman) asked for confirmation that the plan preserves legal language making sure "the district is protected so that we won't incur additional flows that violate the Consent Decree," referring to federal water quality standards. Federal agreements actually spell out that cutting the volume of water sent south is one acceptable way to prevent a violation. Moran and SFWMD have also been lobbying for another: getting rid of the federal standards altogether.

So the one assurance the district claims to offer--protecting Everglades water quality--is the one they're actively trying to get out of. If they do, ironically the assurance they refuse to offer--sending the most possible water south--suddenly becomes on option. (There's always the option to add more land to the project and increase treatment capacity, but SFWMD and the sugar industry have made it clear that they won't let this happen without a court order.)

To be clear, Bullsugar is for the promised benefits of the EAA reservoir. But we want real assurance that we'll get those benefits: (a) the full amount of water sent south, instead of being discharged into our rivers; and (b) clean enough to meet water quality standards. Not either-or.

The sugar industry negotiated ironclad guarantees from Everglades restoration projects: unlimited drainage, unlimited water supply, priority over all other stakeholders in extreme conditions. Our government should negotiate the same guarantees on taxpayers’ behalf.

Shouldn’t that be the least we can ask in return for $2 billion and our blessing?


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