Showdown over $7.8 billion plan to restore the Everglades

Congress begins debating its share of nation's largest, costliest restoration project.

Florida politicians and environmental lobbyists are pulling out every adjective they can muster to help build national support for a proposed $7.8 billion plan to save Florida's Everglades.

"We are committing ourselves this week to a 20- to 30-year effort that I think will result in one of the great triumphs of the century," says Sen. Bob Graham (D) of Florida.

As if not to be outdone, David Guggenheim of the Everglades Coalition says: "This is the largest environmental restoration project in the history of civilization."

Not yet.

To be accurate, it is the largest environmental restoration project ever proposed. What is unclear still is whether Congress will agree to pay for it.

This week, after years of debate and study in South Florida, lawmakers in Washington are getting their first detailed look at how a team of scientists, engineers, and environmentalists are proposing to convert a 50-year-old flood-control system back into a natural ecosystem. The federal price tag: roughly $200 million a year for the next 20 years.

Florida has already pledged to pay for half of the multibillion-dollar project.

While there is widespread support in Washington for the effort, analysts acknowledge that it may require more than a bit of legislative finesse. Senator Graham says he is encouraged about the plan's chances, but he admits that he doesn't have a signed contract yet. "This is a bipartisan effort in Congress, but it is going to take some real heavy lifting," says Ron Tipton of the World Wildlife Fund.

The Everglades system encompasses a huge area across the southern third of Florida. It begins with meandering rivers south of Orlando, continues across and around Lake Okeechobee, and flows into the River of Grass, a wide expanse of saw grass and shallow water that continues slowly to the Gulf of Mexico.

Earlier this century, developers recognized that they could drain and fill portions of the Everglades to provide cheap land for farms and houses. The US Army Corps of Engineers cut canals through the region, rechanneling much of the water away from its slow flow to the Gulf and dumping it instead into the Atlantic Ocean.

At the same time, roads and highways were built across the Everglades, structures that acted like partial dams by slowing or altering the flow of water.

To many it seemed that "progress" was taming the vast swamp. In reality, it is significantly changing a unique and critical habitat for 68 threatened or endangered species. The wading-bird population, for example, is down 90 percent from levels recorded at the beginning of the century. In addition, by disrupting the flow of water, the huge aquifer that extends under the cities of southeastern Florida is being deprived of water needed to keep it full. Salt water from the ocean has begun intruding into what had been freshwater wells.

VIRTUALLY every major environmental problem created through mismanagement by man was foreseen and warned of more than 50 years ago by famed conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas. But her warnings were ignored.

For the first time, the cost of ignoring Ms. Douglas has been quantified. By one estimate, in today's dollars it cost $3 billion to build the flood-control systems and other infrastructure. It will cost more than twice that to save the ecosystem.

The essence of the plan is an attempt to restore both the amount and timing of the southward water flow. To do that, runoff from farms and urban areas must first be cleansed of pollutants. At the same time, the system must provide enough flexibility to offer a reliable level of flood control.

Environmentalists, scientists, and politicians all admit that nothing like this has been attempted before. But experts are confident the project will result in major advances and perhaps a few scientific breakthroughs that will benefit mankind.

"If we succeed, this will become the model for how we do ecosystem restoration in this country and around the world," says John Flicker, who heads the National Audubon Society.

The plan doesn't try to solve every problem facing the Everglades. One major failing is that it does not address a means to slow or halt the explosive population growth and development in South Florida. Instead, the Everglades restoration plan appears to embrace a concept of continued uncontrolled population growth in the region surrounding the fragile ecosystem.

Estimates are that the current population of 5.5 million will more than double to 12 million by 2050.

In addition to warning about the disastrous effects of flood control on the River Grass, Douglas also warned of the dangers of unrestrained population growth. It is one warning officials continue to ignore.

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