Lawmakers cannot endorse an EAA reservoir plan that purposely violates federal water quality standards. That's the warning that Friends of the Everglades (FOE), the Miami-based conservation group founded by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, publicly sent to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection last week.
Specifically, FOE raised concerns that the South Florida Water Management District's (SFWMD) plan to replace a key water quality structure in the Everglades Agricultural Area may violate the terms of a deal cut in 2012 to stop sugar industry runoff from polluting the Everglades. Called Restoration Strategies, the deal pledged almost $1 billion in Florida taxpayer money to clean water from sugarcane operations, which had failed to that point to meet pollution standards imposed in a federal settlement. The structure, the A-1 flow equalization basin, currently helps filter phosphorus before sending water south. Converting it into a deepwater reservoir would eliminate that filtration.
After losing the so-called "Gold Decision" in 2011, when US District Judge Alan Gold sided with FOE and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians and ordered federal oversight to ensure Florida's compliance with clean water standards, the sugar industry has tried to reverse it. Industry lobbyists have openly steered SFWMD's water quality reporting and policymaking this year, and appear to FOE to be influencing the agency's state-mandated EAA reservoir planning to place it in conflict with the decision.
The state agency's proposal does nothing to allay this suspicion.
SFWMD has refused to consider state-owned land leased to sugar growers in its planning, despite explicit guidance in the state law calling for the reservoir. The result is a plan that allows too little land for filtration or efficient storage, reducing the project's ability to quickly treat and send water south to rehydrate the Everglades or to reduce the discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the coasts -- the reason the reservoir was authorized in the first place. An undersized footprint could drastically limit the quantity of water the project can treat, or limit water treatment to a point where it violates federal standards.
FOE called the intentional limitation "a staggering betrayal" of Sen. Pres. Joe Negron's original intent to stop Lake Okeechobee discharges from periodically destroying the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. You can click here to read the letter sent to Florida DEP's Drew Bartlett on December 20th.
A collision between state and federal law is not inevitable. If Negron and the Florida legislature push SFWMD for a revised plan, breaking sugar industry leases (as the law says) to negotiate land swaps for a larger footprint, the reservoir project could accomplish its goals without using private property. Everglades Foundation scientists and engineers have shared a plan that does exactly this: designs a cost-effective reservoir and sufficient treatment to cut discharges, avoid disrupting Restorations Strategies gains, send clean water south to the Everglades and Florida Bay, and save taxpayers money.
If lawmakers direct SFWMD to comply with state law and deliver a workable plan, everybody wins. FOE and the Miccosukee Tribe (and everyone with an interest in the health of the Everglades) keep their historic legal victory. Residents and businesses on the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie see their river, economy, and health begin to recover. Florida Bay and the thousands it supports starts to flourish again. And the sugar industry gives up nothing.
Who wins with the current plan?