Lack of funds has begun to cripple the largest and costliest environmental restoration project on the earth. The rescue of the massive wetlands of Florida, the Everglades, has become shaky.
Seven years into what was supposed to be forty years, the $8 billion effort to reverse generations of destruction, has lost speed. Projects are already years behind schedule, while thousands of acres of wetlands and wildlife habitat continue to disappear, made into concrete jungles by developers or torn apart by rock miners to feed the hungry construction industry.
AdvertisementHopes in the federal government are dwindling. Supporters say the effort would get sorely needed momentum from a long-delayed federal bill fixed at $23 billion in water infrastructure projects, in addition to almost $2 billion for the Everglades.
Yet, President Bush is expected to veto the bill, possibly on Friday. And even if Congress overrides the veto, which is likely, grave uncertainties will stay on.
The plan aims to restore the gentle, shallow flow of water from Lake Okeechobee, in south central Florida, into the Everglades, a vast subtropical marshland at the state's southern tip.
That constant, slow coursing has nurtured myriad species of birds, fish and other animals across the low-lying Everglades. Now half of this has been lost to agriculture and development over the last century.
The plan calls for new reservoirs and other storage systems to capture excess water during South Florida's rainy seasons, guaranteeing an adequate water supply for cities and farms as well as the Everglades.
Yet, a changing economy has hurt the plan. It passed in a year with a record budget surplus, but the climate changed sharply after the terrorist attacks of 2001. According to some state officials the plan got bogged down in federal bureaucracy, a victim of "analysis paralysis."
So far most presidential candidates have yet to speak the word "Everglades." In the only mention that has made news, Fred D. Thompson, a Republican, suggested he might allow oil drilling there. While the Bush administration says it remains committed to the restoration, critics say its actions do not suggest so.
Florida, too, has done things to jeopardize the effort, says former Senator Graham, a Democrat who started the movement to save the Everglades in the 1980s. In 2003, the Legislature, under pressure from the sugar industry, kept off enforcement of strict pollution limits in the Everglades until 2016.
"It's so important to avoid doing anything to send the signal that there's less than full commitment in the state where the Everglades is located," Mr. Graham says. "Frankly, there are people in Washington looking for any sign of lack of commitment in Florida."
Meanwhile, the South Florida Water Management District revealed in September that farmers had missed a phosphorus reduction target for the first time in 11 years, despite the recent construction of 45,000 acres of filter marshes to reduce contaminants in agricultural runoff.
"That is a very loud warning bell that some additional work is needed," avers Charles S. Lee, advocacy director for Audubon of Florida.
In response, State officials say that despite financing challenges, they have made worthwhile progress acquiring land, building filter marshes south of Lake Okeechobee and restoring a more natural water flow to the Kissimmee River, south of Orlando, which is the headwater of the Everglades ecosystem. The state has also broken ground on a reservoir it calls the largest public works project in the world.