In Desperate Times, “River of Grass” Gets Critically Needed Help

everglades3These are desperate times in Florida. With the collapse of the housing market and the ensuing recession, state revenues are down – way down. Services are being cut, projects suspended or abandoned, teachers laid off.

So I was pleasantly surprised to hear the South Florida Water Management District board voted unanimously for a $536 million deal to buy 73,000 acres of land from the United States Sugar Corporation. The land will eventually be taken out of agricultural production, removing a major source of pollution, and converted into reservoirs and artificial marshes that will store and clean water for release into the Everglades during the dry season.everglades

This is not the kind of project that gets a lot of popular support these days. The political climate seems more favorable to environmental abuses such as offshore drilling and construction of nuclear power plants. Voters quickly lose their love of the land when their pockets are empty.

The South Florida Water Management District was under powerful pressure to kill the deal. The politically connected sugar companies lobbied ferociously against it. And some environmentalists complained that the state was paying too much for the land and would have no funds for other restoration projects. everglades2But according to a New York Times editorial praising Florida Governor Charlie Crist for initiating the deal:

Some of those projects — a string of underground storage wells, for instance — made little sense to begin with and none are as important as the land deal. The payout to United States Sugar and some other aspects of the deal seem excessive. But the agency can negotiate the price downward or cancel the arrangement if United States Sugar refuses to bargain or if the economy keeps tanking and the deal becomes unaffordable.

The Times points out that:

Without an ample supply of clean, fresh water, the Everglades will never be restored to anything approaching their former vitality.

There is no shortage of rainfall in Florida. What’s in short supply is places to store it during the rainy season when Lake Okeechobee overflows, places from which the water can be released when it is needed during the dry season to nourish wildlife, prevent catastrophic fire and provide clean water to Florida Bay.

everglades4But there’s more to it than that. As the Naples Daily News pointed out in a Special Commemorative Edition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Everglades back in 1997:

The Everglades is more than a reminder of the uninhabitable swamp country Barron Gift Collier encountered in 1923 when he first pondered one of the biggest real estate gambits in Florida history. The national park provides an economic base for Everglades City. It’s our anti-Disney World, a natural tourist attraction loved by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year who hope to experience its undistilled magic.

The vast swampland that Marjory Stoneman Douglas called a “river of grass” is Florida’s greatest marvel. Despite depredations by greedy developers and misguided government engineers over the years, it remains a source of survival for the Seminole and Miccosukee Indians and a precious legacy for future generations.

Here’s how Ms. Douglas saw it:

The miracle of the light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slow-moving below, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades of Florida.

The purchase of Big Sugar’s lands is just one step in an Everglades cleanup that will cost as much as $7 billion over the next 50 years. But it’s an important one. And it is encouraging to see that in times such as these, state authorities remain committed to restoration of Florida’s “river of grass,” that they remember “man shall not live by bread alone.”