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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Everglades Restoration Roundtable

Air Date: Week of

On July 1st, Congress will receive a proposal from the Army Corps of Engineers on 7.8 billion dollars worth of projects to restore the Florida Everglades. Steve Curwood discusses the controversial plan with Michael Davis, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army, in the Civil Works division, and Ron Tipton, Director of U.S. Ecoregion Conservation for the World Wildlife Fund.


CURWOOD: On July 1st, Congress will receive a 4,000-page, $8-billion proposal from the Clinton Administration to restore Florida's Everglades. This Everglades restoration plan has been prepared by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Interior Department, and the South Florida Water Management District. The White House says the plan is designed to reverse much of the damage done to the natural waterflow in the Everglades. In the 1930s, the Army Corps began draining the region in response to hurricane flooding. It also created dry ground for lucrative real estate development and sugar cane. This has led to many problems, including water shortages and species decline. Joining me now to discuss the new Everglades plan are Michael Davis, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army, and Ron Tipton of the World Wildlife Fund. Ron Tipton says that despite the concerns of some critics, in principle, his organization supports the White House plan.

TIPTON: We think it goes in the right direction towards restoring needed water flows and cleaning up water that's needed in the Everglades system. Now, there are a few issues remaining and they're important issues, one of those being how many projects are on the so-called "A-list" that they send to Congress, that would get priority funding.

CURWOOD: Now, I've heard that you have concerns that the choices being made here are more political than based on ecology, and that a number of species aren't going to really be protected under what the Administration is looking at for its A-list.

TIPTON: I think some groups, the Sierra Club being one, has expressed a great deal of concern that the plan tips too far towards providing water for future growth in south Florida, as opposed to staying with restoration goals. I think that that is a danger. I think that we have to make sure that the Everglades is served first, that the interests of the Everglades system, Everglades Park, Florida Bay, the Florida Keys, the water conservation areas in central and southern Florida, get protected and restored and managed properly.

CURWOOD: Michael Davis, you're Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army. How are you now responding to the concerns about the present Everglades plan that you're putting forward?

DAVIS: Currently, about 70% of the water that's in this ecosystem right now goes for urban and agricultural uses. Only about 30% of the water that once naturally flowed into the Everglades, into Florida Bay, goes to the environment now. With this plan that we've put in place, we're going to recapture about 1.2 million acre feet of water, and 80% of that will go to the environment. And 20% of that will go to enhancing urban and agricultural water supplies.

CURWOOD: And what will the resulting balance then be? Now it's 30%? How much will go for the Everglades after the plan?

DAVIS: When you add it all up, at the end of the day, after the plan, it'll be about a 50-50 split.

CURWOOD: Is it possible to truly restore the Everglades to its natural state, given the existing development and the population pressures there in Florida?

DAVIS: It's not possible to get the Everglades back to a condition that they exhibited pre-European settlement. But what we can do is recapture the functions and the uniqueness that this ecosystem once exhibited in terms of the natural "river of grass," where you have this broad, wide river flowing from Lake Okeechobee down through the Everglades system through what is now Everglades National Park and out into Florida Bay. We can restore and recapture many of those functions that made the Everglades what it is.

TIPTON: We have to remember, the original Everglades extended over 100 miles from north to south and as much as 60 miles from east to west, covered more than 6 million acres. We only have a little more than half of that, but what we have, I think we have the potential to restore to a nearly natural state. Those places can have a rebirth. The endangered species, of which there are 68 federally-listed species in the Everglades, we think most of those can be restored to healthy, viable populations.

CURWOOD: If we were to fast-forward now, 10 years, 20 years, what would we see and hear if we were to go there?

TIPTON: I think you'd hear and see a lot more wading birds. In the 1920s and 1930s, there were literally clouds of herons and egrets and storks covering the skies of south Florida at certain times of the year, certain times of the day. More than 90% of many of those species are now gone. They no longer nest, they no longer feed in the Everglades.

CURWOOD: Michael Davis?

DAVIS: You'll see cleaner water. Coral reefs perhaps will be healthier in the bay. We'll have less damaging discharges to the estuaries, where we have fish kills now because of excess water running out to the estuaries. Less water shortages for urban and agricultural water users as well.

CURWOOD: Can this plan work if the sugar industry continues doing what it's been doing in Florida now for these last few decades? Ron Tipton?

TIPTON: I think the simple answer to that is no. I think sugar is both part of the problem and it's part of the solution. The number one sugar producing state in the country is Florida. Almost a quarter of all the sugar that's produced in the United States is produced in one area that is Everglades, was Everglades, that's south of Lake Okeechobee. This has caused extensive pollution and, probably equally importantly, has resulted in a major diversion of water. Sugar's got to clean up that water. The phosphorus levels are very, very high, and they result in major ecosystem degradation. And also, we need to take back some of that land, a good chunk of it. Not all of it. Sugar can coexist with Everglades restoration.

CURWOOD: Mr. Secretary?

DAVIS: I agree with Mr. Tipton's answer here. I think that sugar, like other components of the humans that now inhabit south Florida, have contributed substantially to the declining health of the Everglades. And they must play a role in helping us restore this ecosystem. And part of that will include allowing us to store water on the land that once naturally flowed through the Everglades agricultural area. We have in the plan now proposed at least 60,000 acres of water storage in sugar land.

TIPTON: Just two points on that. It is important to note that it took a major federal lawsuit to drag the sugar cane growers into being part of the solution. And I don't think we're there yet. I think they still are resisting paying their full share of the cost of cleanup and of restoration. I also think that, we believe that more land than the Army Corps plan calls for ultimately needs to be set aside for storage in the Everglades agricultural area.

CURWOOD: So at the beginning of July, Michael Davis, your administration is going to put this bill forward at the Congress. How do you think the politics are going to play here? What kind of support do you have?

DAVIS: I think we have tremendous support in the Congress from the bipartisan Florida delegation. Senators Gramm and Mack have been leaders in this area, and I think they will continue to help push this through the Congress. I do think that there will be some challenges. It's an expensive project and we'll have to convince members of Congress and the public at large that this is a national priority.

CURWOOD: Ron Tipton?

TIPTON: We've had strong bipartisan support for the Everglades. Not only has the Clinton-Gore team made this a priority, but former Speaker Gingrich and Majority Leader Dole were strongly supportive of funding for Everglades restoration. We think it's to our advantage to be considering this as we move into the 2000 presidential year. We think candidates of both parties, as they go to Florida to stump for votes and as they appear on the national stage, will want to be for restoring the Everglades. This is seen as one of the places in the United States, indeed around the globe, that needs priority protection. No nation has ever tried to restore an ecosystem at the level we're talking about for the south Florida Everglades.

CURWOOD: Well, gentlemen, I want to thank you. Michael Davis is Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army in the Civil Works division. Thank you for joining me.

DAVIS: Thank you.

CURWOOD: And Ron Tipton is Director of the US Eco-region Conservation for the World Wildlife Fund. Thank you.

TIPTON: My pleasure.



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