Running on Empty

A century of messing with Mother Nature has robbed the Everglades of too much water. Now we don't even have enough for ourselves.

"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 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.")

Guiding this ambitious regional planning process is a common awareness that the entire system -- from the headwaters of the Kissimmee River to the coral reefs of the Keys -- is interconnected. What goes into the ground in Belle Glade comes out at Florida Bay. What happens to water levels in Lake Okeechobee will partially govern what pours from your kitchen faucet in Opa-locka.

There is also another common understanding: The natural ecosystem gets first dibs on water. In fact, this is law. Florida statutes require the state to establish the "minimum flow" of water and "minimum water level" in the aquifer at which "further withdrawals would be significantly harmful to the water resources or ecology of the area." According to Water Management District attorney Cecile Ross, even though these statutes are more than twenty years old, "they are up for interpretation. We haven't had a lot of litigation because we haven't gotten to the point of water wars. But I think as growth increases in South Florida and we are forced to send more water to the Everglades, we're going to be going to court on these statutes."

A cornerstone of the ongoing efforts to redress the ills of South Florida's ecosystem is the replumbing of the entire canal-and-levee system built by the Army Corps of Engineers. At the Key Largo meeting, the Corps presented a range of proposals from which it will soon choose its restoration strategy. The most modest proposal would simply alter the timing and volume of water that moves through the existing system. The most ambitious plan would create a buffer zone of reservoirs and marshes along the western edge of Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties; raise the Tamiami Trail on stilts; and knock down levees that block the natural flow of the Everglades.

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