Environmentalism

Swamp Thing

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In the late 1940s the Army Corps of Engineers systematically altered the landscape of Southern Florida by digging channels and regrading surfaces. One result was the creation of enormous amounts of arable land, most of which is devoted to sugar farms that would not exist absent federal sugar-price supports. Another result: The Everglades are about half their former size and in poor ecological health.

Now the Corps is "volunteering," at a projected cost of $11 billion, to "restore" the Everglades to its pristine past. The ambitious undertaking–which would require buying or seizing thousands of acres of private land–is still in the planning stages, but federal, state, and local governments have already spent at least $1.2 billion on the effort, says a report from the General Accounting Office. In fact, the GAO admits it can't be sure how much has been spent, since some "13 federal agencies, seven Florida agencies, two American Indian tribes, 16 counties and scores of municipal governments" are involved and many of them "do not separately track the funds obligated and expended" on the project.

The report suggests the reclamation is likely to become a taxpayer-financed sinkhole, noting that already two projects "integral to the restoration effort are…more than two years behind schedule and together could cost about $80 million more to complete than originally estimated."

There are also issues the GAO doesn't address but that concern Floridians: guaranteeing water quality, the environmental science behind the project, and land acquisition procedures. Since many of the Everglades' natural processes were severely disrupted by the Corps' earlier actions, a number of researchers say it's unclear how they can ever be restored.

And at an April hearing before a House subcommittee, legislators talked liberally about condemning properties or invoking eminent domain to meet their land needs. If landowners stand their ground, the Everglades project could become a political swamp as well as a money pit.