Why We Failed 10 Years Ago

We’ve been here before: on the verge of building a dynamic reservoir in the EAA to cut discharges to the coasts by taking water from Lake Okeechobee, cleaning it, and sending it south to Florida Bay and the parched Everglades. That was the plan a decade ago. Today it’s the elephant in the room. What happened then, and why won’t it happen again?

How close did the sugar industry get to stealing the rest of the Talisman purchase? (far right)

On one hand, there’s the legend: Environmental groups bickered with over technical details and meaningless policy, turned their squabble into a lawsuit that stopped the project, and lost interest altogether when US Sugar announced it wanted to cash out and leave Florida.

On the other hand, there’s the truth. Here’s what really happened.

Almost 20 years ago the federal government bought out the Talisman Sugar Corporation and gave its 50,000 acres to Florida to build the reservoir called Component G in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). Sound familiar?

In the early 2000s the Army Corps and SFWMD planned twin reservoirs, using only part of the Talisman purchase–parcel A. Federal laws required the plans to show that a specific amount of the reservoirs’ water and drainage would be reserved for the natural system (the original proposal was ⅔ for the Everglades and ⅓ for agriculture), and that no other alternatives were better for the Everglades. The plans showed neither.

Meanwhile Jeb Bush claimed the federal government, headed by his brother, wasn’t coming through with promised funding for Everglades restoration. The state proposed funding eight projects (“Acceler8”) including the reservoir, and building them without federal help to get them done faster. But those federal requirements remained, and the plans hadn’t changed.

SFWMD pushed ahead with the reservoir project anyway, without documenting how much capacity–if any–would go to reducing discharges or restoring the Everglades vs. providing drainage and water for the sugar industry.

If work had started in earnest on parcel A of the Talisman property and the design turned out to benefit no one but the sugar industry, the decision could have been irreversible and the land might be effectively stolen, along with Florida’s best chance to fix the problem.

That’s exactly what happened to the rest of the land from the Talisman purchase, through another Acceler8 project that turned parcels B and C into filter marshes for sugarcane fields’ runoff. They’re still in use today: Land bought 20 years ago by US taxpayers became STAs for the sugar industry to dump polluted water.

The Natural Resources Defense Council blew the whistle, announcing in December 2006 that it would sue the Army Corps and SFWMD for violating federal law by failing to fully document the reservoir’s impacts and benefits. With the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation, NRDC filed its suit the following May.

The state’s response? Instead of committing to an amount of water and drainage reserved for the natural system, and showing why the current plan was the best option (it might have been), SFWMD simply stopped work. Thirteen months later Charlie Crist told the world that US Sugar had been working on a deal to sell all the land Florida would need to restore the Everglades and end discharges to the coasts. Of course, it never happened.

Almost ten years later we’re back to Plan A. The original reservoir site is still usable, and plans are being (re)developed to store, treat, and send water south to restore the Everglades and cut toxic discharges from Lake Okeechobee. Would the land be available without the 2007 suit?

Will the new plan show exactly how much water and drainage it can deliver? And exactly how much is reserved for the natural system? And exactly how much for the sugar industry–which isn’t paying a cent or giving up an inch for this project?

And since the new proposal shrinks the reservoir footprint by one-third, exactly why shouldn’t 100% of the benefit of this project go to the natural system, especially after the state gave away the rest of the Talisman purchase to treat sugarcane runoff?

The EAA reservoir will succeed or fail (again) depending on the answers to these questions.