At the same time, the needs of the growing human population of Southeast Florida are on the verge of surpassing the outdated water-delivery system's ability to send water to urban and agricultural areas. The situation stands to get even worse: According to Charles Blowers, chief of the research division of the Metro-Dade County Planning Department, Dade's current population of about 2,030,000 is expected to increase by nearly 900,000 people in the next 20 years.

"The days of buying property, drilling a well, pulling it out, treating it, and sending it to the public are over," declares Segars. "That's a tough thing to say. But unfortunately we're running out of options for water supply. It's going to be a lot more difficult to get, and it's going to result in higher water bills."

Out past Krome Avenue, Segars drives his truck up on top of a high earthen levee that abruptly separates urban development from the natural system. He slides a cigarette from a fresh pack of Winston Lights and gets out. "This is the Everglades," he says grandly, waving his arm in a wide arc. To the west of the levee, a vast expanse of marshy sawgrass rolls out toward the horizon. "This is what Florida used to be like. It's the River of Grass. It's all water. And it's glorious!" A kingfisher swoops low and out of sight. "That's neat as shit," Segars remarks.

"I realize I have a job to provide drinking water to the people, and I'm going to do what I have to do to accomplish that. But I was born and raised down here and I don't want to have a hand in making this go away." Segars bemoans the widespread ignorance about the importance of the Everglades to the economy, both as a source of water and a recreational attraction. "We all own this out here, but we don't all visit it," he observes. "It's like 'out of sight, out of mind.' But if we destroy it, we're sure going to be living differently."

Had someone dropped a bomb on the Sheraton Key Largo during the morning of September 29, efforts to restore the natural ecosystem of South Florida would have been set back years, if not destroyed altogether. There, in a large conference room, sat a who's who of local, state, and federal officials who have recently spent a significant amount of time trying to figure out how we went wrong in the past and what can be done to fix it.

Among the assembled were many of the 41 members of the Commission for a Sustainable South Florida -- a group of elected officials, businessmen, and citizens appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles to study the conflict between growth and the environment. Joining them was a federal ecosystem-restoration task force comprising half a dozen upper-level honchos who had flown in from Washington, D.C., plus representatives from several other federal agencies around the state. Also present were members of the South Florida Water Management District's governing board, and an audience numbering close to 100 federal, state, and local officials, developers, environmental activists, and representatives from the farming industry.

"We have a very unusual meeting today," began Richard Pettigrew, a Miami lawyer and chairman of the governor's commission. "It may be historic in that it reflects the effort to bring together the federal agencies, the state, regional, and local agencies...in a joint effort to do the thing that we're all striving to do. And that is to restore the natural assets of our ecosystem in South Florida."

For many people the notion of ecosystem restoration has meant the enormous, if narrow, task of cleaning up the polluted water that poured out of the agricultural areas south of Lake Okeechobee. In 1988 the U.S. Government sued the State of Florida for failing to maintain the quality of water flowing into the Everglades. The legal battle ended in a final settlement this past January, a deal that included the construction of a $14 million marsh, a prototype for a 40,000-acre system of marshes designed to remove farm pollutants from the runoff before it reaches the Everglades.

But the Miccosukee Indians and the environmental group Friends of the Everglades have filed objections to the project, arguing that the proposed federal permits should set stricter limits on pollution leaving the marsh. The groups say that the 1994 Everglades Forever Act, which mandated the marsh, is generally too lenient on the sugar-cane growers who cause most of the pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has permitted the state to operate the marsh temporarily until federal officials decide whether to grant the opponents an administrative hearing.

Despite this pending dispute about water quality, discussion about ecosystem restoration is dominated these days by the issue of water quantity. (Joette Lorion, vice president of Friends of the Everglades, is not pleased with this shift. "It's like doctors getting together and talking about plastic surgery while the hemorrhaging goes on," she muttered, standing outside the Sheraton conference room where the fix-it men and women had gathered. "I think Marjory Stoneman Douglas would be disheartened to hear so little talk about water quality.")

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