New Everglades cleanup could cost $880 million

Florida's revamped plan to restore the Everglades could soak taxpayers for another $880 million to save the famed River of Grass, according to estimates released Thursday.

The state already has spent $1.8 billion to stem water pollution, but still has fallen short of federal water-quality standards in the Everglades.

A redirected Everglades-restoration plan, pushed by Gov. Rick Scott , seeks to resolve lingering litigation over Florida's failure to meet water-quality standards — without paying as much as the $1.5 billion envisioned under pending federal mandates.

Negotiations between state and federal officials over a restoration plan have been ongoing since October, but fell short of a settlement this week.

"We are not done, but we are close," said Melissa Meeker, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District , which leads Everglades restoration for the state.

The deal calls for the district to use a mix of cash reserves, property-tax revenue and help from the Legislature to pay for the mix of stormwater-treatment areas and reservoirs envisioned for the restoration plan.

But expecting more tax revenue as well as money from the Legislature is more of a "wish list" than a financial plan, said James Moran, a member of the water management district board, which would have to approve paying for the deal.

"I have about 880 million reasons why I don't like this plan," said Moran, one of Scott's appointees to the nine-member district board. "If we approve this plan … we will eventually have to raise taxes."

While still awaiting more concrete details of the new restoration plans, environmental groups have defended additional investment in the Everglades as worthwhile to protect water supplies that are as beneficial to drinking-water supplies and tourism as they are to wildlife and native habitat.

"We are having to repair something that we have broken," said Drew Martin of the Sierra Club. "A clean environment and a clean Everglades [are] ultimately going to benefit all of us."

Florida and the federal government remain behind schedule on a long-term, multi-billion-dollar plan agreed to in 2000 to restore water flows to the Everglades.

In October, the governor surprised the environmental community by flying toWashington, D.C., to try to jump-start settlement talks with a new plan for Everglades restoration.

Without a deal, Florida faces the possibility of having to enact a plan proposed by theU.S. Environmental Protection Agencythat the state estimates would cost $1.5 billion.

The new state proposal seeks to limit costs by using taxpayer-owned land for a core group of reservoirs and treatment areas to clean polluted stormwater that flows to the Everglades.

Florida already has more than 50,000 acres of man-made filter marshes that use aquatic plants to absorb polluting phosphorus washing off agricultural land.

Scott's plan seeks to reduce the additional 42,000 acres of stormwater-treatment areas sought by the EPA.

It envisions improving the efficiency of existing filter marshes by adding more water storage. That could better regulate water flows through the treatment areas and hold water for times of need.

The state proposes targeting pollution "hot spots," which could mean stepping up pollution-control requirements on certain farming areas where fertilizer runoff and other agricultural practices boost phosphorus levels.

Other possibilities in the deal include tapping an under-used reservoir west of Royal Palm Beach for more "multi-purpose" water supply needs, according to Meeker.

The Palm Beach Aggregates rock-mine-turned reservoir cost the district $217 million and was intended to replenish the Loxahatchee River and provide a backup to community drinking water supplies. But the district has yet to build the $60 million pumps needed to get the water to the river.

Also under the state proposal, northern portions of the 26,800 acres the district in 2010 bought for $197 million fromU.S. Sugar Corp.for Everglades restoration could be traded for property in targeted restoration areas farther south.

State and federal officials later this month are to meet with court-appointed representatives to show what kind of progress they are making on reaching an agreement.

"Substantive progress … is being made," district board Chairman Joe Collins said Thursday. "We are headed in the right direction."

Environmental groups such as Audubon of Florida and the Sierra Club have maintained that imposing more pollution control requirements on sugar cane fields and other South Florida farms could cut restoration costs by stopping run-off pollution before it gets to natural areas.


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