Editorial: Don't stick taxpayers with Everglades bill

March 22, 2013 

It never fails. The Everglades clean-up, set on the path -- again -- to completion is met by yet another well-funded effort to knock it off course. This time, polluters want the state Legislature to let them wriggle out of their longstanding responsibility to pay their fair share not just to clean the River of Grass of damaging phosphorous, but also to prevent the chemicals from entering the waterway in the first place.

Lawmakers should swat down these efforts, or else they need to have an extremely plausible explanation as to why they are sticking Florida taxpayers -- their constituents -- with an additional billion-dollar tab.

The Everglades Forever Act, passed in 1994 has traveled a very bumpy road of delays and detours, lawsuits and foot-dragging.

In spite of it all, the Everglades are cleaner, but still not clean enough to meet federal requirements.

Last year, the feds and the state forged an agreement that will lead to an expansion of stormwater treatment areas and construct "flow equalization basins" to serve as a buffer against surges of polluted water. The cost is $1.4 billion.

The sugar industry, among the producers responsible for much of the phosphorous runoff -- and for the costs of the clean-up -- doesn't want to take its proportional share of the hit and has turned to the Legislature to be let off the hook. But here's the damage that could be done if House Bill 7065 passes:

n The original "statement of principles" agreed to by the U.S. Department of Interior, the sugar companies and the state of Florida says that the costs of the clean-up would be proportional. If costs went up, Big Sugar would have to pay more. But the industry wants the Legislature to declare that it is already paying enough to insulate it from the latest and future costs.

n Growers are required to use "best management practices" to clean water before it leaves their fields.

According to the Audubon Society, some are doing well, others need to do much better. Sugar wants to maintain the status quo, with no efforts to force the recalcitrant growers to make their water cleaner.

n Regional water managers and the Department of Environmental Protection can require sugar farmers to do more if their water violates water-quality standards, even if a farmer has an existing permit. The proposed change would eliminate the state's ability to crack down, allowing permits to become a shield against additional clean-up requirements.

Rather than pull back, Big Sugar should want to build on its success. After all, regional water managers say that the industry has reduced the amount of phosphorous flowing south from Lake Okeechobee by 71 percent from 1994 levels. The Everglades clean-up is a gargantuan, decades-long project that will save a vital waterway that supplies drinking water for millions in South Florida, provides habitat for myriad wildlife species and is an economic boon that draws tourists from around the world.

Already, the federal government continues to rally behind the Everglades restoration. The Obama administration has committed $80 million to buy 23,000 acres of ranchland in the northern Everglades -- Florida panther habitat -- to ensure it remains undeveloped and pristine. On Tuesday, the Interior secretary unveiled a bridge that will replace a roadway, increasing the volume of water flowing south.

In Florida, Gov. Scott is on board, including $60 million in his budget for Everglades clean-up. Now, he should insist that lawmakers not muck up the River of Grass.

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