Judge approves $880M Everglades restoration plan

By Matt Sedensky
West Palm Beach, Florida (AP) July 2012

A federal judge has given clearance to an $880 million Everglades cleanup plan, paving the way for the possible resolution of more than two decades of lawsuits.

U.S. District Judge Alan Gold cancelled a hearing on the matter scheduled for next week and instead issued an order allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to grant permits for the projects.

The plan faces a public hearing later this month before proceeding.

State and federal officials whittled out the deal in a year and a half of negotiations. Christopher Kise, a lawyer who has advised Gov. Rick Scott and former Gov. Charlie Crist on Everglades issues and who represented the state Department of Environmental Protection in the lawsuit, said the plan succeeded because it “sets out, for the first time, real goals, real projects, real timelines and real financial commitments for restoration.”

Kise said he’s optimistic the judge’s order may mean a shift, after nearly 25 years, to “restoration and not litigation,” but “it’s too soon yet to know for sure.”

The lawsuit was filed in 2004 by the Miccosukee Indian tribe – whose reservation is in the Everglades – and claims state and federal agencies have repeatedly failed to enforce Clean Water Act standards in the vast wetlands. An environmental group, Friends of the Everglades, has joined the tribe as a plaintiff. An even older lawsuit over many of the same issues dates to 1988.

Together with the legal challenges, funding shortfalls and political bickering have stymied efforts to restore the Everglades, a key water source for millions of South Florida residents.

The wetlands have been damaged for decades by the intrusion of farms and development. Dikes, dams and canals have been cut, effectively draining much of the swamp and polluting it with fertilizers and urban runoff.

Under the joint state-federal plan, new stormwater treatment areas will be built and permits will be issued for the operation of tens of thousands of acres of already built ones. It will also create new water storage areas. All of it is an effort to filter phosphorous, which comes from fertilizer and promotes the growth of unhealthy vegetation that chokes native plants.  

Many environmentalists have cheered the plan, but some have expressed skepticism grounded in years of delays. In a brief filed, Friends of the Everglades expressed concern funding might not come to fruition and that “this `commitment’ amounts to no commitment whatsoever.”

News of Gold’s order came as the Obama administration trumpeted $80 million in new funding for land easements as part of restoration efforts in the northern Everglades. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the funding, saying it would help restore another 23,000 acres through deals with farmers and ranchers who allow conservation projects on their land.

Charles Lee of Audubon Florida heralded the funding as a “home run for the Everglades.”

All told, the Obama administration has spent $1.5 billion on Everglades projects and requested another $246 million in its 2013 budget. In a phone interview, Vilsack said the projects are helping preserve and restore the Everglades’ water resources, create jobs through construction and contribute to a sense the ecosystem is reaching a key point in its healing.

“There is a lot of activity going on, a lot of momentum, and I think a lot of people will say this is the most progress they’ve seen in this area in quite some time,” he said.