From its enactment in 2001, the plan to restore what remains of the Everglades -- the acronym is CERP -- has been a vehicle with a lot of moving pieces: CERP is heavy on complex, expensive engineering projects. Massive environmental and governmental politics churn in the background. The cast of stakeholders is huge, and hugely partisan: Agricultural interests; municipal, state and federal government agencies; environmental groups; developers and other business interests; scientists; citizens groups; the Miccosukee tribe; the Army Corps of Engineers; and water management officials.
And while the whole three-ring circus squeezed itself under the CERP tent, there always has been a big nudge-wink factor as far as who would be the ringmaster. In signing on to CERP, the stakeholders chose to pretend that everybody could be made happy -- that the plan could get enough clean water flowing south to both sustain the Everglades and provide for all the growth being shoehorned into southeast Florida.
CERP got off to an uneven start. The federal government didn't produce the funding it promised for the restoration, and the stakeholders began edging back toward their parochial interests. In the meantime, of course, south Florida continued to grow like crazy, putting even more pressure on the water supply that has to quench the thirst of both the people and the Everglades ecosystem.
In the past two years, however, there have been some encouraging developments. In late 2004, Gov. Jeb Bush signed off on a plan to fast-track eight key restoration projects by leveraging the flow of state money to provide the big doses of capital needed to get the projects moving. The projects included work on restoring wetlands and creating water treatment areas and huge reservoirs to manage and clean the flow of water moving south from Orlando through Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades.
Under the leadership of South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Carol Wehle, the district has moved ahead smartly and efficiently. She rightfully takes pride in the fact that in less than two years, her agency designed, got permits and broke ground on seven of the eight projects. Three of the seven are complete and came in on time and on budget. (One reservoir under construction will be the world's largest earthen reservoir -- 7 miles wide and 22 miles around, encompassing 16,000 acres.)
Meanwhile, as the digging and building got under way, the district rejected applications from Miami-Dade County to increase its use of water from the Everglades system by more than 100 million gallons a day. Early last year, the state essentially backed up the water district by refusing to allow the county to expand its urban boundary line to enable faster growth.
In February, the water management district's board took another big step: It formally adopted a rule limiting water withdrawals from the Everglades to April 2006 levels. The district essentially told Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties that if they wanted more water to grow, they couldn't take it from the Everglades and would have to find it by reusing more water, using reclaimed water to recharge the overstressed Biscayne aquifer or looking to sources like the Floridan aquifer.
As Wehle points out, it simply doesn't make sense to work with one hand to ensure that the Everglades is getting enough water while using the other hand to siphon water away. Particularly, it should be pointed out, given how much taxpayer money will be spent on restoration -- a figure likely to be much nearer $16 billion than the project's original $10-billion price tag.
And particularly in a region where per capita water consumption is high and reuse is low: Miami-Dade and Broward counties account for about a fourth of Florida's population and generate 33% of the state's domestic wastewater, according to a 2003 state report. Yet the two counties account for less than 4% of all reuse capacity in the state. Miami-Dade reuses just 6% of its water (ranking 56th among the state's 67 counties); Broward reuses 5% (ranking 60th). Palm Beach does considerably better, reusing 26% of its wastewater (ranking 36th). If Miami-Dade reused 30% of its wastewater, it would have enough water for the next 20 years of projected growth.
There's still plenty to watch as CERP moves forward. The district's suggestion to municipalities to use the Floridan aquifer, whose source is in the fastest-growing part of the state, central Florida, is potentially troublesome. The practicality of part of CERP's design -- using deep wells to store water for use during dry periods -- is still unclear. In addition, Wehle says the district has realized it needs to build more reservoirs north of Lake Okeechobee to better manage the flow of water moving south down the Kissimmee River.
Meanwhile, the fiscal partnership between the federal government and the state is broken. While the state has stepped up to the plate, the federal government still isn't contributing the share of funding it promised for the project back in 2001. Getting that money should be a priority for Sens. Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez and the rest of Florida's congressional delegation. The federal government also needs to move quickly to fix the Hoover dike around Lake Okeechobee. The dike -- which is a federal property -- was designed to handle lake levels up to 24 feet but is in such poor condition that the Corps of Engineers has to begin discharging water out of it when the lake's level reaches just 17 feet.
Still, Wehle and the South Florida Water Management District board deserve credit for their effectiveness in moving the various CERP projects along. And even more for making policy that starts to take the nudge-wink factor out of CERP. That bit of backbone is exactly what's needed to drive home the reality that the days of cheap-water, damn-the-consequences growth decisions are over in Florida. It's a lesson that other water management districts and the rest of the state's municipalities should take to heart as they prepare the 10-year water-supply plans now required by state law. The Everglades' ultimate lesson, of course, is that the best way to avoid spending billions to fix vital ecosystems is to not break them in the first place.