Twenty years on, plan to restore FL’s Everglades runs into climate questions

December 17, 2020 7:00 am

The Florida Everglades as seen from the Tamiami Trail. Credit: Marc Ryckaert via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been humming the opening lines of a certain Beatles song lately. Why? Because it was 20 years ago today — no, wait, actually it was on Dec. 11, 2000 — that plans to restore the Everglades got their official OK with a bizarre little ceremony at the White House.

This happened during the three-week-long battle over the presidential election results in Florida, a fight that pitted Texas Gov. George W. Bush against Vice President Al Gore and guaranteed no one in Florida would name their child “Chad” for the next several decades.

While that was going on, Bush’s brother Jeb, then the governor of Florida, flew to Washington to meet with Gore’s boss, President Bill Clinton, in the Oval Office.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush
Former Gov. Jeb Bush (to the right) in the state House chamber. Screenshot, Florida Channel.

The Republican governor was there to watch Clinton, a Democrat, sign into law a bipartisan bill, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program, aka “CERP,” hailed as the largest environmental restoration project in the planet’s history.

Michael Grunwald, who recounts this surreal scene at the start of his book, “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise,” said Jeb had “the air of a quarterback who had stumbled into the opposing team’s locker room.”

“This is a great day!” Clinton boomed. “We should all be very proud.”

Oh, the heady optimism of those early days! I remember it well.

Back then, lobbyists for Big Sugar walked the halls of Congress and the Florida Legislature arm-in-arm with lobbyists for environmental groups to get CERP approved by both. Republicans and Democrats alike were on board with cranking up a big-dollar government-funded project that would rescue the River of Grass (which appealed to Congress) as well as provide enough drinking water for South Florida to double its population (which appealed to Florida legislators).

There was so much harmonizing going on that if they’d all sat around a campfire singing “Kumbaya” and sharing s’mores, no one would have been a bit surprised.

In spite of all the happy talk, though, the details provided sufficient docking space for several boatloads of devils.

More complicated than brain surgery

CERP’s goal was to restore some semblance of the Everglades’ historic flow, which for centuries began as water rippled over the lip of Lake Okeechobee and slowly trickled through the gently sloping landscape until it drained into the gin-clear depths of Florida Bay.

Between the 1940s and 1960s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District had ripped that natural system apart and replaced it with 1,000 miles of levees and canals, 150 water-control structures, and 16 major pump stations to drain South Florida’s soggy landscape and make it dry enough for farming and development. Both the Everglades and Florida Bay suffered mightily, as did the wildlife there.

So who wound up in charge of fixing it? The same people who broke it, of course.

The 3,500-page plan, drawn up over several years by the Corps and the water management agency, filled a stack of binders 4 feet high. Rather than simply tearing out all those structures, the CERP plan called for replacing them with a new set of man-made structures to hold the water back and redirect it. Making it all work required the state and federal governments to work as equal partners, putting up an equal amount of money.

The Corps official in charge, Stu Appelbaum, warned everyone, “Everglades restoration isn’t brain surgery. It’s more complicated.”

Despite CERP’s complexity, the folks in charge predicted it could be completed in 30 years for $7.8 billion. Over and over, politicians looking to bolster their environmental record have trekked down to the Everglades to pose for pictures while vowing their staunch support for throwing taxpayer money at the project.

Noah Valenstein, Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Credit: DEP

Now here we are at the 20-year mark on something every politician says they support and guess where we stand. As the Fort Myers News Press reported last week, after the state and federal government spent $5 billion, exactly one of those 68 separate projects has crossed the finish line.

The one that’s done isn’t even one of the major construction projects. It’s a laboratory in Davie that, as the story puts it neatly, “raises bugs to devour invasive pest plants.” So … yay?

Don’t get me wrong. Lots of big stuff is underway, including building three huge reservoirs south, east, and west of Lake Okeechobee.

“We have tremendous momentum now,” Chauncey Goss, chairman of the water agency, said during a recent Everglades Foundation forum. And Noah Valenstein, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, promised that projects under construction will be done “in years, not in decades. …. We’re right at the top of the hill, about to start rolling down.”

But the estimated price tag is now up to around $16 billion, more than double the original, and the new completion date is in the 2060s, which is 30 years after it was supposed to be finished. In other words, by the time it’s done, CERP will be ready to apply for an AARP membership.

As the sea level rises

I called up Appelbaum to ask him about this. He retired from the Corps and now works for Arcadis, an engineering company that has Everglades-related contracts. He said his brain surgery analogy still holds true.

“Things have gone slower than we anticipated, and they’re more complicated than we contemplated,” he told me.

Money was a major problem, he said. The original plan for the federal and state government to each kick in $200 million a year fell apart because Congress failed to come through with its share, he said. It’s catching up now, though.

Meanwhile, he said, the plan turned out to fall short in its most crucial area: storing excess water. The rain-fueled flow is far greater than anyone realized two decades ago, he said, and some of the innovative ideas they had for holding that water in wells and reservoirs turned out not to be feasible.

One smart thing Congress included in the Everglades restoration plan requires regular reviews by a panel of outside scientists. It’s called the National Research Council’s Committee on Independent Scientific Review of Everglades Restoration Progress (don’t try to make it into an acronym — I tried and nearly broke my tongue).

State officials have sometimes bridled at the science panel’s recommendations. Three years ago, for instance, a former boss of the water agency announced he would tell his staff to stop cooperating with CERP’s science review team because they were sticking their noses into issues he believed were outside their purview.

But the scientists have soldiered on. Their last review, in 2018, came up with a doozy of an observation.

Ever since Bill Clinton signed the bill in 2000, the goal for CERP was to mimic the historic Everglades. The question the science panel asked was: What if that’s impossible now?

“There is now ample evidence that rainfall and temperature distributions in South Florida are changing and compelling recent evidence that sea-level rise in South Florida is accelerating,” the lead author, William Boggess, an Oregon State University professor, wrote in the report. “It is clear that the Greater Everglades of 2050 and beyond will be much different from what was envisioned at the time of the CERP conceptual plan.”

On top of the changes wrought by the alteration of the climate, the Everglades is now chock full of invasive pythons that have gobbled up 90 percent or more of the small mammals, the report pointed out. That’s not addressed by the original CERP plan, either.

To deal with this, the scientists said, it’s time to consider a course correction in the Everglades plan, altering it to cope with this new reality. But two years have gone by without any apparent steps to follow that recommendation. Goss, in the forum, said his water agency is “working on that with the Corps” without giving any details.

When I asked Appelbaum why everyone’s dragging their feet on this, he said there was some concern about two government agencies “being able to walk and chew gum at the same time.” In other words, if they take time to adjust to climate change, they might lose the momentum they have built up, he explained. He’s confident they could do both at once, but others apparently don’t feel the same.

So I’d sum up everything this way:  It’s taken our Sgt. Peppers 20 years to get this big bandwagon called CERP cranked up and moving down the road. But the gas has gotten way more expensive, the road has gotten much longer, and the drivers would rather keep rattling along at top speed than pull over to see if they’re going the right way.

Their bosses, the politicians, aren’t complaining. They’re happy to pose for their Everglades photo ops and don’t care that they’re spending a ton of taxpayer money on a rescue that may not work. No one will really know it’s gone wrong until long after they’re out of office or dead or both.

Meanwhile, they can keep proclaiming themselves pro-environment because they support restoring the Everglades, even as they keep approving roads and other development-related projects that will cause additional environmental damage — damage that will, just like the Everglades, need to be fixed at taxpayer expense sometime in the future.

As the Beatles would say: I don’t really want to stop the show, but I thought that you might like to know. After all, you’re paying for this trip.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.