Everglades ‘restoration’: A work in progress?

When it comes to the $10 billion-plus project to restore the Everglades, America’s fabled River of Grass, it helps that independent scientists under the umbrella of the National Academies of Science are evaluating segments of the huge taxpayer investment in which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Interior and the South Florida Water Management District audit their own performance.

Consider the National Research Council report on government’s plan to use Florida’s fragile aquifers and 300 drilled wells as the linchpin of the $10 billion-plus government plan to “restore” the Everglades.

The NRC offers digestible encouragement. After all, although chartered by Congress to be science advisers to the nation, the NRC is paid by the same government agencies doing the work—a job even more awkward since some agencies are more equal than others.

Exploiting Florida’s aquifers uses a common well-drilling technology called ASR to store and later retrieve fresh water.

The chief advantage of ASR wells is that much less land is needed if water can be vertically injected underground instead of stored horizontally in wetlands on the massive scale planned. The ifs are big ones.

The NRC report chooses its words with care: “Because the Everglades studies may show that aquifer storage and recovery on the scale being proposed is not feasible, planners need to consider now what should be done if that is the case.”

Let’s cut to the chase, folks.

Picture yourself as caretakers of a live, freshwater-fish tank that thrives because you carefully balance the acidity and hardness of the water. Now picture what happens when you change out that water with water that you had stored in a rusty container.

The water from the rusty container is analogous to water stored in an aquifer that would filter into the Everglades, a resource so fragile that it cannot stand sugar’s pollution measured in parts per billion.

The engineering challenges of ASR are not much more complicated than digging a well, but judging the long-term costs is very complex.

And even before the jury is in, all your little critters could be bobbing at the surface, dead as corks.

The common-sense alternative, instigating the flow of fresh water to the Everglades through constructed wetlands, requires buying substantially more of the land owned by sugar farmers huddled around Lake Okeechobee, and there is the rub.

You don’t have to read between the lines of the NRC report to get the point. Just overlay the timelines.

The legitimate concerns of scientists will take many years to address. In the meantime, Florida sugar producers are gearing up to obtain permits for major new developments edging into lands where sugarcane now grows.

The process of science involves inquiry and testing of hypotheses. The process of development permits involves “Hey, buddy, stamp the !@#$!!! permit because the county commission says so.”

The fight for the Everglades is between what the public wants but doesn’t quite get—restoring the Everglades by buying more land now owned by Big Sugar—and what Big Sugar, its developer allies and lobbyists understand but don’t want: government intervention.

Guess who delay favors?

Years ago, Henry Dean, director of the South Florida Water Management District, promised environmentalists it would take only six months to lay out for the public what the alternative to ASR wells would look like.

By the time Dean makes good on his promise, the baseline to evaluate the ecosystem will have shifted so much that what remains will be open to even more furious debate and the dream of citizens, environmentalists, fishermen and hunters will have been foreclosed by an avalanche of home-mortgage applications.

It is an embarrassment.

That may be one reason why the political appointees of the South Florida Water Management District intended to sign up a big public-relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, to polish its image despite its own substantial communications staff.

The three-year contract for $2.4 million, apparently nixed in a flurry of bad press, would have used your tax dollars to do a better job persuading you that stalwart political leadership is moving Everglades restoration in the right direction.

In a rebuke recently reported in the Washington Post, Gov. Jeb Bush dismissed environmentalist critics in telling his aides, “We don’t need their permission to save the Everglades,” echoing how President Bush, in his last State of the Union speech, said that no permission slip is needed to defend America.

Forget permission. What about accountability?

Neither official has stated the obvious: how the federal budget crisis is a principal reason the federal portion of funding for the Everglades is drifting.

Aquifer storage and recovery on the scale envisioned for the Everglades is a fool’s errand, but, by the time the state of Florida gets around to saying so, it will not be possible to follow the advice of the National Research Council—come up with an alternative to aquifer exploitation.

What happy days and bright horizons are ahead when the memory of what we lost has evaporated like steam from a pond on a clear morning before the temperature started to rise?

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