02/23/2013 08:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Florida Everglades Restoration Stalled By Water Quality And Costly Cleanup

The good news is that there's a new plan in the works to restore water flows to the struggling Everglades. But the bad news is that the water might not be clean enough to meet water quality standards.

Then there's also the matter of the $1 billion tab, which state officials don't want to pay.

Now the water quantity versus water quality problem, as well as cost concerns, threatens to derail the latest effort to jumpstart overdue Everglades restoration.

State officials are questioning whether water quality standards intended to help the Everglades could result in hurting restoration progress.

"Until this issue is addressed, we are not going to be able to send that water south," South Florida Water Management District Board Chairman Joe Collins said at the board's February meeting in Orlando.

Environmentalists contend that instead of trying to soften or circumvent water quality regulations, the state should require Big Sugar and other agriculture to do a better job cleaning up the pollution that flows off farmland.

"The water management district has not done enough to reduce the level of phosphorus," said Charles Lee, of Audubon of Florida. "This is not a new issue. It is something the district has known about literally for decades."

State and federal leaders are crafting a new "Central Everglades" plan that would take a new approach to restoring water flows to the Everglades that through the decades have been drained away to make room for farming and development.

Water once naturally overlapped Lake Okeechobee's southern shores and flowed in shallow sheets through the Everglades, all the way down to Florida Bay. Now those natural flows have been mostly cut off to clear the way for farming and development, leaving the Everglades about half its historical size.

South Florida's vast system of levees, pumps and canals redirects water that once replenished the Everglades and uses that water to irrigate agriculture and restock urban drinking water supplies while also dumping billions of gallons of water out to sea for flood control.

The new Central Everglades plan calls for trying to mimic some of those historical flows by removing portions of levees, filling in sections of canals and boosting pumping capacity to get more water flowing toward Everglades National Park.

The state and Army Corps of Engineers, working with growers and the environmental community, explored four alternative routes and methods for those reconfigured water flows. This month they unveiled a combination of the plans that is earning praise from environmentalists. It would cost about $1 billion, according to early projections.

But the consequences of getting more water to the Everglades is that water potentially bringing with it more polluting phosphorus.

Phosphorus, found in fertilizer, animal waste and the natural decay of soil, washes off agricultural land and urban areas and drains into the Everglades.

The state and federal government have recently agreed on a $1.5 billion effort to improve Everglades water quality by building more reservoirs and pollution-filtering stormwater treatment marshes to clean up water that washed off agricultural fields.

Now state leaders are questioning how to move ahead with the Central Everglades plan if it means adding to the pollution problem.

"We are concerned about the water quality," said Melissa Meeker, South Florida Water Management District executive director. "We all recognize it is a problem."

Central Everglades plan supporters contend that the water quality concerns may be premature. The proposal remains in the works and can be tweaked based on ongoing computer modeling intended to better understand its effects on water quantity and quality in the Everglades.

Potential changes may be needed to avoid redirecting too much water from coastal areas, officials said.

"The team is currently evaluating effects on water quality associated with changes in water flow to Everglades National Park," Army Corps spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said.

As for paying to get the water flowing, state leaders contend that it's time for the federal government to pick up more of the Everglades restoration tab. That means getting congressional approval at a time when Washington, D.C. is plagued by partisan gridlock.

The hope is to formalize the Central Everglades plan by the end of the year and get Congress to sign on in 2014.

"If this project is going to go ahead, it's going to be with [federal] dollars and not ours," water district board member James Moran said. "If we can't get that, we are wasting our time here.", 561-228-5504 or Twitter@abreidnews ___



The Florida Everglades