Florida governor signs bill relaxing requirements to clean up Everglades

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday signed a bill easing requirements to clean up the Everglades.

By Sylvie Dale
Online Editor

May 21, 2003 -- Florida Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday signed a bill easing requirements to clean up the Everglades.

The new law, which amends the 1994 Everglades Forever Act, may threaten money to come from the federal government for a current project to restore the Everglades, a project with an estimated price tag of $8 billion, according to reports form Reuters News Service.

The Everglades region provides a source of drinking water to millions of customers in the area and is home to dozens of endangered animal species.

U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler, who supervises the Everglades Forever cleanup process shared by the state and federal government, expressed concerns about the new law but said he would still continue with the cleanup efforts.

Gov. Bush said in a statement that the law is built upon good policy and that it will provide a strategic plan to address the region. The law's critics have said it eases water quality standards on allowable levels of phosphorus, a fertilizer ingredient used in nearby sugar plantations. The bill received strong backing from the sugar industry, especially U.S. Sugar Corp.

A 2000 U.S. bill set up a partnership between Florida and the U.S. government to share the $8.4 billion in restoration costs over 30 years.

Each year, Congress must review and approve specific federal funds to be used on the project. Next year, for instance, about $270 million in federal aid will be needed for project planning and for purchasing land that will be restored, according to the National Audubon Society.

The main issue in the debate is the deadline for certain water-quality standards. The amendments would leave a loophole in a 2006 deadline, allowing it to slide if it is not scientifically possible to meet that date.

According to the U.S. Sugar Corp. the bill:

• provides clear authority and direction for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to meet existing requirements to apply by the end of this year for renewal of Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) permits needed for the next phase of phosphorus treatment in water flowing to the Everglades;

• approves a new SFWMD construction and research schedule defined as the "Long-Term Plan" that includes all of the improvements to the existing Stormwater Treatment Areas (nearly 42,000 acres) that scientists and engineers have determined to be scientifically justified and technically feasible. Funding and construction deadlines are included;

• extends the existing EAA Agricultural Privilege Tax ($25 per acre, $7.5 million per year) at the full rate for an additional three years beyond its scheduled expiration in 2013 and provides that payment of the tax complies with the constitutional "polluter pay" requirement;

• provides that after the extension, the Ag Tax will continue indefinitely at the reduced rate of $10 per acre to support operations and maintenance of the cleanup program;

• provides that the existing SFWMD levy of no more than 0.1 mil of ad valorem revenue will be available, with other revenue including the Agricultural Privilege Tax, to fund the initial 13-year phase of the Long-Term Plan, which begins next year;

• provides that the Long-Term Plan will be implemented for an initial 13-year phase (2003-2016) and will be reviewed by the Legislature at least 10 years after this first phase begins. A second 10-year phase will follow if approved by the Legislature and further authorized by the Everglades Forever Act;

• requires that the Plan and incremental improvements that may be required in 5-year intervals must meet the test of "Best Available Phosphorus Reduction Technology" (BAPRT) and must be determined by the Department of Environmental protection to allow achievement of the phosphorus criterion for the Everglades at the earliest practicable date;

• requires legislative review of the Act and Long-Term Plan before SFWMD can implement a second 10-year phase of the Plan;

• directs integration of the Long-Term Plan with the larger State/Federal Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan ("CERP"), which is not mentioned in the original 1994 law;

• amends the permitting provisions for modifications to the STAs in the Everglades Construction project to be reviewed under the same statutory requirements applicable to all CERP projects . These modifications must be designed to achieve water quality standards to the maximum extent practicable and under no circumstances shall the project or strategy cause or contribute to a violation of state water quality standards;

• authorizes "moderating provisions" as part of the Everglades Phosphorus Criterion Rule which is under review this year by the Florida Environmental Regulation Commission (ERC). These provisions may be available during implementation of the Long-Term Plan and allow discharges to areas previously impacted if net improvement is shown. For unimpacted areas discharge may also be allowed through a moderating provision if the DEP determines that environmental benefits clearly outweigh potential adverse impacts;

• specifies that nothing in the amendments will modify existing cost share responsibilities between the State and Federal Governments under the Water Resource Development Acts of 1996 and 2000;

• clarifies that nothing in the legislation changes the proposed phosphorus criterion for the Everglades or limits the authority of the DEP and ERC in adopting a proposed criterion of 10 parts per billion; and

• requires that the criterion be achieved at the earliest practicable date.

U.S. Sugar Corp. said the law does not:

• change the water quality requirements in the Everglades Forever Act;

• delay any steps to reduce water pollution;

• remove any requirements for achieving water quality criteria to be set by the Environmental Regulation Commission;

• interfere in any way with the state-federal CERP partnership;

• violate the terms of the federal court settlement agreement under Judge Hoeveler's supervision;

• add any new taxes to support the cleanup; and

• reduce the responsibility of the Everglades Agricultural Area to be "primarily responsible" for the removal of nutrients from water leaving the farms.

Online resources:

For more information from the South Florida Water Management District, visit their web site at http://www.sfwmd.gov/.

There is more information about the specific projects being carried out on the Everglades Restoration web site (http://www.evergladesplan.org).

The text of the 1996 Everglades Forever Act is available at http://www.evergladesplan.org/wrda2000/wrda_1996.cfm.

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