Glades Reservoir Proposal Encounters Some Opposition
Jan. 25A new science report questions whether there will be enough water left to restore the Everglades as suburbia eats at its edges, and it suggests reconsidering some touchy places to store it: Namely, Lake Okeechobee and the vast sugar and farm fields south of the lake, locations already neck-deep in water and growth disputes.
The report, released Monday by a National Research Council panel, found that the "irreversible development of land" posed the single biggest risk to the $8.4 billion state-federal plan to revive the River of Grass.
"The whole plan as it is designed is predicated on being able to have land that can be restored. The more land that gets taken out of the potential restoration pot, the less likely the success," said Jean Bahr, a University of Washington hydroecologist who chaired a team of 14 scientists who have reviewed restoration plans since 1999.
The report, intended as an advisory opinion for federal and state agencies managing the restoration, mainly revived old but still controversial issues.
Environmentalists praised much of it, saying it echoed their concerns about sprawl outpacing land buys. Development has consumed parcels targeted for projects along Biscayne Bay and pressure is growing in rural western Palm Beach County, where environmentalists have sued to block the development of the Scripps Research Institute on a farm near sensitive wetlands.
But environmentalists joined regional water managers and farmers in attacking any proposal to convert Lake Okeechobee into a restoration reservoir.
High lake levels, a flash point for decades, have drowned aquatic plants vital to fish and wildlife, and dumping the water has trashed fragile estuaries on both sides of the state.
"Pitting natural areas against each other is clearly what Everglades restoration is not about," said John Adornato, co-chair of the Everglades Coalition, which includes 45 environmental groups.
Chip Merriam, deputy executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, which is managing the restoration for the state, dismissed the idea outright. "That's just not an option we're willing to look at."
The focus of the report, the final by the panel, was whether the massive replumbing plan can store enough water to support the natural system.
Because the restoration plan depends on drawing roughly 80 percent of its water out of underground storage reservoirs and converted rock pits, potentially leaky systems largely untested on such a grand scale, the science panel suggests developing contingency plans if those engineering approaches don't work.
The report proposed raising Lake Okeechobee as one possibility. Another would be to flood much of the vast farmland southeast of the lake.
Bahr, the panel's chair, said the scientists weren't advocating either position but rather identifying them as options if the complicated plan doesn't work as billed.
But the report minced no words on the need for land and the threat of paving over the half-million-acre Everglades Agricultural Area, where developers are pressing to convert mucky fields into town houses.
"The worst from the point of view of Everglades restoration would be commercial, residential and industrial development of the area," the report said.
Robert Coker, a senior vice president for U.S. Sugar, which owns 200,000 acres in South Florida, said the report rehashed issues that were explored for years before Everglades restoration and Lake Okeechobee plans were hammered out to balance urban, farming and environmental needs.
"We have gone through a long process of understanding the diverse needs of South Florida," Coker said. "It's not been pretty. It's been ugly at times. But we've reached consensus and we're making progress."
Merriam agreed better contingency plans were needed and said agency planners had been working on them for months.
He echoed concerns about losing critical lands but said the district had already bought more than 50 percent of the land needed for what was originally intended to be a 40-year project. Last year, the state also announced it was speeding up eight key water storage and restoration projects, some by as much as a decade, at the cost of $1.5 billion.
"I don't know much more aggressive you could ask the state or district to be," Merriam said.
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© 2005, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.