Federal environmental regulators on Wednesday approved an $880 million state plan intended to dramatically reduce the flow of farm and suburban pollution into the Everglades.
Both sides hailed the agreement as a milestone in a decades-long dispute over cleaning up the River of Grass. If approved by two federal judges, it would commit Florida to a major expansion of projects intended to clean up storm run-off before it flows into the Everglades, adding to the $1.8 billion the state has already poured into cleanup efforts.
In a letter announcing the approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, regional administrator Gwen Keyes Fleming said the state’s plan represented “a significant and historic milestone in restoring America’s Everglades.”
Herschel Vinyard, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, issued a statement crediting Gov. Rick Scott for pushing for a resolution to long-running disputes and federal lawsuits over the slow pace of Everglades restoration.
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“Gov. Scott recognizes both the environmental and economic importance of a healthy Everglades, which is why he made Everglades restoration a top priority for the state,” Vinyard said.
The announcement comes nine months after Scott flew to Washington to pitch Florida’s latest plan for stopping the flow of polluted farm, ranch and yard runoff into the Everglades and to resolve two federal lawsuits, one going back almost a quarter century.
The state was under particular pressure from U.S. District Judge Alan Gold, who had threatened to impose an even more expensive, $1.5 billion EPA-proposed cleanup plan on the state.
Florida’s $880 million plan would expand an existing network of 45,000 acres of artificial marshes, with another 11,000 acres scheduled to come online later this year that will absorb damaging nutrients from farm and suburban storm runoff.
The massive network hasn’t been enough to meet the super-low standards needed to protect the sensitive Glades ecosystem from phosphorous, a common fertilizer ingredient that drains from farms and yards with every rainstorm. It fuels the spread of cattails and other exotics that crowd out native plants.
Under the state plan, another 6,500 acres of treatment marshes will be added, along with a string of new “flow equalization basins” intended to help the marshes remain effective by limiting flooding or damaging dry-downs.
Environmentalists still have concerns about the plan, particularly a schedule that will push back state cleanup deadlines by a decade and about how the state will finance the deal. But most consider the step a sign of progress after years of stalling on clean up.
“It wraps up almost a decade of arguing over what the best thing to do is,” Julie Hill-Gabriel, director of Everglades policy for Audubon Florida, told the Associated Press. “This, at the very least, is an agreement that these are the right steps to move forward and sets very stringent deadlines.”
In her letter to the DEP, EPA regional administrator Fleming said the agency believes the state plan should address concerns raised by Gold and fellow U.S. District Court Judge Federico Moreno in a separate cleanup lawsuit dating back to 1988.
She said intensive negotiations over seven months had produced a plan that would meet federal water quality standards and credited both Scott and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson for championing the deal.
“These critical measures will launch a new era in Everglades restoration that I believe will fulfill the expectations of Judge Gold, and the hopes of many others concerned about the health of the Everglades,” she wrote.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.