Everglades Restoration Plan—Unwise, Unnecessary


LOS ANGELES–The U.S. Senate recently approved by an 85-1 vote the first appropriation for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a mammoth program that reflects all that's wrong with federal environmental policy.

Vice President Al Gore and Gov. George W. Bush both like the plan, which is meant to repair some of the damage done during previous attempts to manage the Everglades by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Since 1948, the Corps have built over 1,700 miles of canals and levees in Everglades National Park for flood control purposes, in the process creating 1,000 square miles of new agricultural land for sugar farmers, drying out nearly half the old swamp and sending 1.7 billion gallons of fresh water a day into the ocean.

The new Everglades plan is the biggest environmental public works project ever attempted. The plan is supposed to cost $7.8 billion and take 30 years, an estimate that is almost certainly optimistic.

The program has been and will continue to be mired in turf fights among a slew of federal and Florida agencies, Indian tribes (the Miccosukee and the Seminole), as well as scores of environmental groups.

Consider the fate of two smaller-scale projects already in motion in the Everglades' area, the Modified Water Deliveries Project and the C-111 canal project.

A General Accounting Office report last April found those endeavors are already two years behind schedule, apt to end up more than five years behind schedule and projected to cost $80 million more than original estimates.

The far-more-ambitious Everglades plan is not likely to fare any better. The Army Corps' plan depends on as-yet-untested theories, models and methods. The Corps has cheerily announced their intention to use "adaptive management."

In other words: Start giving us money based on this plan, and if it doesn't work, let's keep making it up as we burn up taxpayer money. As the bill moves on to the House of Representatives, the public should recognize a few things.

For one, the Corps doesn't really know what it's doing. The federal money flowing into the Everglades is a bonanza for scientists, who are launching scads of research projects to learn things that should already be known before a project like this begins.

For example, we don't know enough about animal migration patterns, water seepage or how models match with reality to be confident of what the Everglades will be like when the plan is completed.

The key element meant to guarantee the fresh water supply for southern Florida is a risky scheme to inject fresh water deep into the ground, where it will in theory remain separate from the heavier brackish water beneath.

While such a system has worked on the small scale before, it has never been tested on the scale the Everglades plan requires. The plan is a further assault on private property in a state where the government already owns 29 percent of the land.

Since the Corps started messing with the Everglades over 50 years ago, various levels of government have acquired more than 4.6 million acres in the region.

The new plan will require taking another 200,000 acres. The bosses at Everglades National Park want to drive from their homes the residents of the 8.5 square-mile area east of the park, insisting those people must leave in order to restore water flows into the park.

Col. Terry Rice, a former commander of the Army Corps with a doctorate in hydrology, disagrees. "It's not a question of water," he says. "It's a question of culture in the park. They want buffer zones, no eyesores and they consider people and farm fields eyesores."

These threatened citizens, many of them refugees from Fidel Castro's Cuba, will rightly embroil the plan in legal challenges as the government tries to take their homes.

"Restoring" the Everglades isn't really possible. There is no going back to what existed before the Corps did more destruction to the Florida swamp than private enterprise could ever have afforded to do. Merely restoring what we know of water flows will not necessarily result in the old flora and fauna reasserting themselves.

There never was an ecologically constant Everglades to return to. The Everglades lie in a continually hurricane-battered area a few feet above sea level. Even if such a construct did exist, we don't know enough about its past conditions to "restore" it.

The Corps' project is not a return to nature but another human re- engineering to suit current government interests, which include forcing a slowdown in population and urban growth in southern Florida.

The Everglades' problem–poor water quality and quantity, fewer wetlands and species depletion–are a result of the federal government's previous attempt to manage the Everglades.

Such untried possible solutions as an introduction of free water markets to the currently state-managed water system in Florida could do more to cope with water scarcity problems fairly than a multi-decade, uncertain engineering project.

The Everglades plan was born in ignorance and arrogance to solve a government-created problem. Sadly, it's a typical modern environmental program.

This article was carried by BridgeNews on September 29, 2000. Brian Doherty is an associate editor at Reason magazine.