High-Stakes Fight Expected in Everglades

Dec. 28, 2001
Looming on the horizon in the coming months is what could be a sharp debate about a recently proposed strict limit on a particular kind of pollution in the Everglades' watery terrain.

The pollutant is phosphorus, which otherwise is a key plant food for everything from lawns to lake algae.

However, too much phosphorus in the Everglades has triggered the growth of cattails, that have obliterated natural expanses of saw grass and squeezed out wildlife.

Experts at the state Department of Environmental Protection have recommended cutting the amount of phosphorus in Everglades wetlands to 10 parts of the chemical for every billion parts of water.

As really tiny proportions go, that's like 10 seconds out of 32 years. Yet the significance of 10 parts per billion is anything but small.

"It's hugely important," said Ken Wright, an Orlando attorney and chairman of a Florida citizens commission that will have several public hearings to ultimately determine a phosphorus limit for the Everglades.

"Our job is not to set the level at what we think is achievable today," Wright said. "Our job is to set the level for the long term."

The Everglades is in the early stages of a repair job that has become a major industry.

The work has two main goals: reduce phosphorus and replumb the Everglades, an expensive job.

An extensive network of flood-control canals has sliced the state's biggest swamp into a desiccated version of its natural self. Nearly 2 billion gallons of water that would otherwise help saturate the Everglades instead drains out of canals each day into the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.

One result has been a steep drop in the variety and populations of wildlife.

Restoring the flow of water through the wetlands will cost nearly $8 billion and take more than 20 years.

The other main direction in Everglades restoration is the proposed reduction of phosphorus, an issue that focuses largely on massive sugar-cane farms.

In past decades, the farms pumped a relative phosphorus soup into the Everglades. Changing farming techniques and retaining runoff in basins have helped cut phosphorus levels to less than 50 parts per billion in areas of the Everglades nearest to the farms.

The Environmental Regulatory Commission, a citizens panel that determines many of the state's rules for protecting air, water and natural lands, wants to make a decision by summer on whether phosphorus should be limited to 10 parts per billion.

Controversy likely will arise from environmental advocates who want phosphorus levels measured at the places where farms drain their fields into the Everglades. However, the giant sugar corporations have said they'll fight to have phosphorus measured at places well away from their farms and out in wetlands.

The stakes are so high, both in dollars and prospects for Everglades recovery, that many participants expect a blizzard of lawsuits and other legal challenges to delay the final resolution of a phosphorus limit for perhaps years.

"The process from here on out is somewhat dicey," said Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida's senior vice president in Winter Park.

"The goal of the sugar industry is to set in stone their current performance and not clean up the Everglades any further."

Representatives of U.S. Sugar Corp., which farms 194,000 acres near the Everglades, have said they are not opposed to reducing phosphorus levels.

But they want to see scientific evidence that costly phosphorus reductions will bring about real and worthwhile improvements in the Everglades.

"If we discharged water that had zero parts per billion at the end of the pipe, it would have no impact in the short term," said Robert Coker, senior vice president at U.S. Sugar Corp. "That's because there's so much phosphorus in the soils now."

Source: Journal Sentinel

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