Why you should care
Because other environmental projects will require federal help too.
Shark Valley — once dubbed “a river of grass” by early-20th-century environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas — is the entry point for many visitors to the Everglades. But today, as wetland ecologist Steve Davis leans into the brittle brush, the path in front of him is dry — the result not only of drought but also design. Long-ago laws meant to preserve water for sugar farmers up north have choked off the water that should naturally flow to this region. The upshot? More than 170 plants and animals here are now endangered, mostly because of “the way we mismanage water,” says Davis, who works for the nonprofit Everglades Foundation.
The sins of the father, however, need not be visited upon the son, at least not in Florida, where lawmakers agreed to the largest environmental intervention in two decades to preserve this UNESCO World Heritage site. In May, the Florida Legislature approved a $1.5 billion reservoir project — the cost ostensibly split between the state and the feds — which experts and advocates say would increase natural water flow to the parched region and reduce the putrid algal blooms that erupted again last year. (In 2013, the blooms were so severe that locals called it “the Toxic Summer.”) The funding effort was initially opposed by fiscal hawks in the state’s House of Representatives, but they were won over by Senate President Joe Negron, who made it a top legislative priority. “After 20 years of talking about southern storage, this legislation establishes and fully funds a concrete plan,” Negron told constituents in a victory lap statement.
If all it took was science to get this [environmental intervention] done, it would have gotten done a long time ago.
Steve Davis, wetland ecologist, Everglades Foundation
But the future of the Everglades now rests on funding from Donald Trump’s Washington. It’s just another example of the high-stakes game of cat and mouse played between states, which commission high-cost public works projects — from parklands to airports, bridges to ports — and the feds, whose contribution can can make or break the deal. On the trail, Trump appeared to be an ally to such public projects, proposing an ambitious $1 trillion infrastructure plan to get Americans working. But the newly passed federal budget for 2017 didn’t include that campaign promise. When the president takes another crack at the budget in September, other environmental stimulus packages will vie for attention — from restoring the San Francisco Bay Delta to deepening Chesapeake Bay shipping channels in Maryland and Virginia — and states might cast an eye to the Sunshine State for inspiration.
Florida’s success is especially notable because it’s the rare case of a major environmental agenda item that passed with the blessing of a conservative-led Legislature. It took an unlikely confluence of events to push Republicans to look past their penchant for purse tightening. First, a visible public disaster right in their backyards: Negron’s own Treasure Coast District on the Atlantic side of the state had fallen victim to the algae scourge.
Next, studies showed a pressing economic impact: One report commissioned by Florida Realtors concluded that improved water quality translates to hundreds of millions of dollars in added real estate values. “Stories have also circulated of outraged tourists vowing never to return after witnessing how bad the water can get,” the Realtors report read. And the Everglades Foundation released a study saying that Florida Bay, which has become hypersalinated as seagrass dies off from poor water flow, contributes nearly half a billion dollars annually to the South Florida economy. Confronted with those realities, public pressure joined hands with a political interest. “If all it took was science to get this done,” Davis says, ”it would have gotten done a long time ago.”
That’s not to say it was easy. Less than a year ago, the state’s residents doubted that green activists, agriculture giants and the real estate community could agree on anything. “There is no single villain in this nightmare,” Maggy Hurchalla, a former Martin County commissioner, told National Geographic at the time. The original Senate plan called for buying up 60,000 acres of farmland south of Lake Okeechobee for the reservoir.
Some criticized the plan’s use of eminent domain to seize private property, while a drive through those communities reveals why farmworkers and the sugar industry were vehemently opposed to the land grab. The journey west from Miami courses through miles upon miles of cane fields and tractors humming down the highway in a region already hobbled by nearly 40 percent unemployment. “Simply put, this bill is a job killer,” union leaders wrote in a letter to the bill’s sponsor, state senator Rob Bradley.
Lawmakers heeded those concerns by reshaping the proposal around state-owned and leased land, while also saying displaced farmworkers would get dibs on jobs created by the reservoir project. Florida Governor Rick Scott, a major Trump ally, has signaled that he will sign the bill, giving him what could be a major cross-aisle talking point should he run for U.S. Senate next year, as expected.
Long-term planning on water issues may be a difficult political lift, but it’s crucial, according to scientists like Davis. Kneeling in the sand that traces the Tamiami Trail along the northern border of the Everglades, Davis unfurls a map dotted with the state’s last major construction projects, passed in the ’80s. He points across the man-made canal here, to the 2.5-mile bridge that’s finally being built, saying it’s like opening the plumbing to let the water rush through. “It’s the first time since the 1920s where we’re getting substantial new flow,” he says. And, assuming federal funding comes through, more clean water is on the way — a 78-million-gallon gulp of life-giving, job-generating stuff.
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