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Wandering Florida

"Trouble Down South — The River of Grass has a Long Road to Recovery"
By Joe Murphy
Jul 19, 2007 - 2:19:00 PM

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Florida is defined by many things.  Some define Florida by our world class beaches.  Others define Florida by the hanging chads, jumping sturgeon, red tides, crime dramas, droughts, unique characters, and variety of zany stories that end up as late night fodder that seem to always come from Florida.  I define Florida by the places that one could only find here.  The Everglades is top on that list.
Recently the GAO (General Accountability Office) of the federal government released their findings as to the status of Everglades restoration and recovery.  Their report speaks to the long road ahead for the River of Grass, and the legacy of over 100 years of poor policy decisions by those entrusted with protecting our natural resources.  
The battle over the Everglades has always been about water.  When the water should flow, who it should flow to, and how clean it should be define the debate and the legacy of Everglades destruction and restoration.  In some ways the progress towards protecting the Everglades has been significant and remarkable.  In the early 1900's Florida's Governor's race was defined by which candidate would pledge to do more to dredge and drain the Everglades.  By 1947 Marjorie Stoneman Douglas had led a nation to establish Everglades National Park.  In 2006 both major candidates for Governor in Florida ran as champions of Everglades restoration, and Gov. Jeb Bush considers his work on behalf of the Everglades as part of his environmental legacy.

Yet despite the flowery speeches given against the backdrop of sawgrass prairies or sloughs of cypress there is much to do to restore the Everglades.  Generations of mistakes must be corrected.  Policy makers and regulators who have always given the development and agricultural community the water whenever they wanted it, and allowed Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades to be the dumping grounds for polluted waters, must learn a new language and set new priorities.  The GAO report documents the struggles that have occurred to change these patterns and fully fund projects that are for pure restoration.
The concept of a "river of grass" comes from the fact that historically the Everglades was fed by a large, shallow river that flowed from central Florida all the way to Lake Okeechobee, and then on to Florida Bay.  That river has been dammed, diked, and diverted in the name of flood control, agriculture, development, and progress.  Now,  billions of dollars are being spent to put things back in some semblance of how they were before the water control projects.  This is not a cheap proposition, and the irony of those who did the damage (the US Army Corps of Engineers, the South Florida Water Management District, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection) being entrusted to reverse the damage and engage in restoration is not lost on life-long Floridians who see another Carl Hiaasen novel in the making here.
There has been progress and there is hope.  Land has been purchased for restoration and habitat preservation.  The state of Florida has picked up some of the federal government's slack in funding programs that are part of the restoration blueprint.  The word "no" has actually been uttered recently in the halls of government as the usual suspects ask for more development, mines, dredges, water, and pollution permits.  It is not said enough, and not said with any regularity�.but it is occasionally said.
Essentially the GAO report can lead Floridians to conclude that more must be done, it must be done quickly, and true restoration must be the highest priority of all projects dedicated to Everglades recovery.  True Everglades restoration must put natural systems first.  True Everglades restoration must treat the "River of Grass" as the amazing and rare place that it is and not a place for supplying Big Agriculture and Big Development with all the water they want when they want it, and a place to dump their waste when they are done with the water.  

Floridians want Everglades restoration.  Taxpayers are paying for Everglades restoration.  The GAO report is another reminder that without citizen oversight and input, and without a profound commitment from all the stakeholders involved, the best we'll get is a pretty green bandage on the dying body of the dream of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.

Joe Murphy is the Florida Program Coordinator for the Gulf Restoration Network.  To learn more about GRN please visit

© Copyright 2008 by The Observer News Publications and M&M Printing Company, Inc.

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