Federal Judge to Determine Next Step in Everglades Restoration

From the air, the endless Everglades appear to teem life. Graceful, pure white egrets glide above green native sawgrass. Dark alligator trails meander through the swamps, which sparkle in the bright sunlight.

THE EVERGLADES, Fla. — From the air, the endless Everglades appear to teem life. Graceful, pure white egrets glide above green native sawgrass. Dark alligator trails meander through the swamps, which sparkle in the bright sunlight.

Despite the proximity to urban South Florida, few structures are visible in the lonely, flat landscape, with ruler-straight canals the only sign of man's presence.

Yet beneath the placid surface is an ongoing life-or-death struggle over the chemical makeup of Everglades water, virtually ruined by decades of fertilizer runoff from 650,000 acres of mainly sugar farms southeast of Lake Okeechobee.

The phosphorus-laden runoff promotes unhealthy growth of cattails and other unwanted vegetation, upsetting nature's delicate balance. The long-term health of South Florida's unique ecosystem, the "river of grass" from Lake Okeechobee to the Florida Keys, depends on the outcome of a court-ordered cleanup.

Over a decade after the court-ordered cleanup began, the unprecedented $8.4 billion state and federal government restoration effort is nearing a critical juncture.


Miami U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno has concluded that excessive phosphorus discharges violate that original court agreement and ordered hearings beginning Monday to determine what should happen next.

The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, which have a reservation in the middle of the Everglades, and a coalition of environmental groups are seeking ironclad guarantees from Florida and U.S. officials, enforced by the judge, that would set out deadlines and updated, tougher phosphorus reduction requirements.

The tribe and environmentalists say the government cannot meet the current deadline of Dec. 31, 2006, for Everglades phosphorus discharges of no more than 10 parts per billion, about one-sixth the level in some bottle drinking water. That level is critical to slow the march of encroaching cattails and promote growth of sawgrass that is vital to the entire ecosystem. Phosphorus runoff into the Everglades had at one time been measured as high as 173 parts per billion.

"The first step to recovery is to admit there is a problem," said Dexter Lehtinen, a Miami attorney representing the Miccosukees. "We want an acknowledgment of the phosphorus exceedences and the need for a remedy."

Government officials insist the overall restoration project, affecting a total of about 2.4 million acres, is working and will only improve as more projects are completed.

The cornerstone is a series of six stormwater treatment areas -- STAs in government lingo -- through which water bound for the Everglades flows and which contain plants that essentially suck up most of the excessive phosphorus.

"I think this has been a resounding success," said Ernie Barnett, the state Department of Environmental Protection's director of ecosystem projects. "We're proud of what we've done."

During a recent helicopter and SUV tour for The Associated Press, state officials said more than 41,400 acres has been acquired for these STAs at a cost of more than $1.2 billion. By 2009, they said, the restoration effort will have about 60,000 acres in water treatment capacity.

On the ground at one treatment area, the profusion of wildlife spurred by cleaner water was apparent. Alligators and turtles were plentiful, along with wood storks, ibis, and moorhens with their tiny black chicks -- and of course the swarms of mosquitos and gnats that lie at the bottom of the food chain.

Environmental groups acknowledge that the STAs have reduced phosphorus in the Everglades. But they say the government's own results show that in many cases, too much phosphorus-laden water is coming into the treatment areas from farms and that some STAs are too small to handle larger-than-expected amounts of water.

"It's not that the wrong things are being done. It's that we need to do more of the right things," said Charles Lee, advocacy director at Aubudon of Florida. "I think we've had good results so far. But we are getting indications that more needs to be done."

Source: Associated Press