The Sway of Cattails and Politics
A Florida law that alters water-purity rules could determine the fate of the Everglades, as well as the outcome of local and national elections.
THE EVERGLADES, Fla. â€" From the helicopter
flying at 500 feet, the intruder is soon visible: a fringe
of cattails, undulating lazily in the hot breeze of a
Florida summer's midday.
For Gary Goforth, an environmental engineer on the chopper,
the lush, densely packed plants stretching in a bright
green smudge alongside the L-7 Borrow Canal are an
unwelcome sight. They are a noxious force, as well as a
warning that this expanse of Florida's vast, watery
wilderness is ill.
Cattails, Goforth says over the crackling intercom, suck up
oxygen, block sunlight and hinder the growth of fish,
crayfish and wading birds. In parts of the already badly
shrunken Everglades, says the Texas-born official of the
South Florida Water Management District, the alien
vegetation has been altering the "fundamental building
blocks" of nature.
Hundreds of miles separate the monotonously flat,
sun-washed interior of Palm Beach County from the corridors
of power in Washington and Tallahassee, Florida's capital.
But what transpires here and in the rest of the Everglades
in the months to come could have great consequences for
multibillion-dollar plans to undo damage done by humans to
the environment, as well as for state and national
This spring, nine years after passage of a landmark state
law â€" the Everglades Forever Act
â€" designed to reverse decades of devastation
to southern Florida's landscape and animal life, Gov. Jeb
Bush signed a new law changing the rules on how cleanliness
of water flowing into the great marsh will be measured.
The new state law was stridently opposed by
environmentalists, a federal judge, members of Florida's
congressional delegation and even some in Bush's own
Republican Party. Opponents call it a virtual license for
Florida's sugar barons to keep discharging polluting farm
residue into the Everglades for 10 more years.
Runoff from the cane fields, overly high in phosphorus, is
a major agent in the disruption of a fragile natural
equilibrium established over millennia. Phosphorous-loving
cattails fester, and habitat and food sources for wood
storks, great blue herons, ibises and other species are
choked off, experts say.
"It is not a suitable environment for wildlife," said Rick
Cook, public affairs officer at Everglades National Park,
the country's only subtropical preserve, which spans the
Florida peninsula at its southern tip. "It's almost
impenetrable, even to airboats going in for research
The issue of waterborne nutrients and their effects on
these remote wetlands at first glance seems arcane, or of
concern only to ecological zealots. But for many people in
Florida, protecting the Everglades is tantamount to a
In this state, "you can't be seen as supportive of
environmental destruction," said Lance deHaven-Smith, a
professor and political scientist at Florida State
University. Among voters here, deHaven-Smith said, the
governor and President Bush "are really seen as one
person," and if Gov. Bush appears hostile to the
Everglades, it could hurt the president in his reelection
bid next year.
The new Everglades law has already engendered a stack of
furious newspaper editorials and roiled public opinion.
Nathaniel P. Reed, an assistant secretary of the federal
Interior Department in two Republican administrations,
accused Gov. Bush and lawmakers in the Republican-dominated
Legislature of caving in to demands from sugar companies,
among the most generous sources of political donations in
"They failed to understand there would be an uproar
throughout the state," Reed said.
Bush has counterattacked by saying opponents of the law are
more motivated by politics than science, and by reiterating
his commitment to saving the Everglades. But in the face of
widespread and mounting criticism, he pushed amendments to
the new law through the Legislature in June.
As for the companies that grow about 20% of America's sugar
on black muckland south of Lake Okeechobee, one executive
said they were doing their utmost to be environmental good
neighbors, and that their foes didn't understand the
stringent demands made on them by the new legislation.
"There is no group more motivated than the farming
community to having the water that leaves our farming
region contribute to a healthy Everglades," said Jorge
Dominicis, vice president of Florida Crystals Corp., a
major sugar producer.
For Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the Florida author and
environmentalist who died in her sleep at age 108 in 1998,
the Everglades were the shimmering, unparalleled "River of
Grass," a unique, fragile treasure to be preserved and
cherished by all Americans. No other landscape on the North
American continent is like it, biologists and wildlife
Southward from Lake Okeechobee, a meandering river flows,
50 miles wide and no more than 2 or 3 feet deep. Its water,
once purer than the rain, has become over the last 5,000
years the warm and liquid medium for an astonishing variety
of flora and fauna.
Here, white-plumed egrets wheel through dazzling blue
skies, alligators lurk in the sawgrass and jarflies furnish
an incessant chirping soundtrack. The Everglades are home
to 68 species of animals designated as endangered or
Since the 1880s, at least half of this once seemingly
boundless marsh has been lost to farms, housing, shopping
centers, roads, golf courses and other manifestations of
Florida's ever-growing population. Today, according to the
state Department of Environmental Protection, only about
half of the original Everglades remains. But at 2.4 million
acres, these expanses of sawgrass prairie, sloughs and tree
islands still encompass an area far greater than the state
The Everglades, and the water that created them, constitute
"the basis of all life, man and wildlife, in Florida south
of Lake Okeechobee," Reed said.
Starting in the 1940s, to meet the demands of flood
control, drainage, navigation, irrigation and humans'
growing thirst for water, the Everglades were ambitiously
replumbed with 1,000 miles of canals, 720 miles of levees
and 16 gigantic pumping stations. The once lazily flowing
River of Grass became more like an automobile expressway,
with devastating effects.
Now, areas that receive some of the heaviest rainfall in
the continental United States are subject to drought, as
nearly three times the daily water consumption of Los
Angeles is rerouted and dumped into the sea to prevent
flooding in populated areas.
Water flows to the Everglades have dropped by nearly
three-quarters, and the numbers of herons, storks, egrets
and other long-legged birds living here have fallen by as
much as 90%.
Simultaneously, there has been a rise in habitat-altering
phosphorus. Runoff from naked, peat-rich soils in the
700,000-acre agricultural area to the north has been a
major contributor to sullying the Everglades' once-pristine
waters. Because of manufactured control structures, the
water flows faster as well, reducing the time sawgrass and
other plants have to filter the phosphorus.
"We thought, years ago, that we were doing a good service
in building dikes and levees and canals," said David B.
Struhs, Florida's secretary of environmental protection.
But the phosphorus content of the water soared, from
historical lows of 6 parts per billion to as high as 200,
and in places, cattails encroached on the native
brown-green sawgrass, including inside Everglades National
"Under normal conditions, you can find a few cattail stalks
even in the most pristine areas of the Everglades," said
Charles Lee, senior vice president of Audubon of Florida.
But when nutrient levels in water climb, he said, the
plants "go out of control."
For years, the state and federal governments did battle in
lawsuits about the pollution coming from cane fields and
other farms south of Lake Okeechobee. That ended in 1991
when Gov. Bush's Democratic predecessor, Lawton Chiles,
marched into a Miami courtroom, admitted Florida was
pumping dirty farm water into the Everglades, and said the
state was ready to "surrender."
In the ensuing 1992 consent decree, Florida pledged to take
a number of steps to reduce phosphorus in the water
entering the 1.5-million-acre park and the Loxahatchee
National Wildlife Refuge. Two years later, state lawmakers
passed the Everglades Forever Act, mandating a legal
ceiling for phosphorous. The limit was supposed to go into
effect Dec. 31, 2006, and Gov. Bush advocated a rigorous
standard â€" 10 parts per billion.
That was how things stood until last spring, when dozens of
lobbyists for the sugar industry swarmed over the state
Capitol, seeking changes in the Everglades Forever Act.
"We lobbied it, absolutely," said Dominicis, speaking on
behalf of the Florida Sugar Cane League, an industry
association. The result, he said, is a brand-new "model"
law setting strict requirements for sugar companies.
"Big Sugar panicked," said Reed, now active in
environmental organizations including the National Audubon
Society. "They decided to seek a law that would relax the
existing law and the timeframe for compliance."
In Florida politics, sugar is one of the heavyweight
players. A study this year by the editorial board of the
Orlando Sentinel, one of the state's major newspapers,
found that the industry's registered lobbyists and their
clients doled out more than $13 million in political
contributions in Florida during 2002 alone.
No state grows more sugar cane than Florida, and the sweet
substance it yields has become the state's fourth-largest
cash crop, generating about $500 million a year, said Terry
McElroy, spokesman for the state commissioner of
From fieldworkers to the grocers who sell them food, the
sugar industry estimates it creates 25,000 Florida jobs,
mostly in rural areas where there are few other
opportunities for work.
In the often gridlocked Legislature in Tallahassee, the new
law on the Everglades was quickly approved by large
bipartisan majorities. The original bill, Struhs said, was
a draft by the sugar industry itself. But he said his
department managed to make more than a dozen changes more
beneficial for the environment.
It may be up to the courts to decide what the highly
technical, sometimes confusingly worded result means. In
rough terms, Struhs said, it defines what "net improvement"
in water quality will signify. From 2006-2016, Struhs said,
the sugar industry will be not be judged by phosphorous
levels but by the investments, technological upgrades and
actions undertaken by growers to try to make the water
Dominicis of Florida Crystals Corp. called it a tough law.
"People are going to look back in three years or so, and
when the water quality is down in that 10 to 15 part per
billion range, they're going to be saying, 'This is
incredible,' " the sugar company executive said.
For environmentalists, the action by the Legislature and
governor was a blatant betrayal of the 1994 Everglades
Forever Act and its requirement that by 2006, all water
flowing into the River of Grass meet a government-imposed
standard for purity.
"Basically, the state went behind closed doors and
negotiated with the sugar industry for an extra 10 years
for the sugar industry to clean up its water," said Mary
Munson, national co-chair of the Everglades Coalition, an
umbrella group of 41 environmental and conservation
Ripples from the controversy were quick to reach Washington
and beyond. U.S. Rep. David L. Hobson, an Ohio Republican,
wrote to Gov. Bush in June warning that the most ambitious
attempt in history at environmental repair, an $8-billion
project for restoring the Everglades, may be postponed
because of doubts that Florida remains committed to
cleaning up the water as soon as possible.
The Everglades project, to be paid for equally by state and
federal governments, is widely seen as a model for other
proposals to undo human damage to the Rio Grande Valley,
Chesapeake Bay, the California coast and other areas, said
Ron Tipton, a senior vice president for the National Parks
Conservation Assn., a nonpartisan watchdog group. "People
are closely watching what happens in the Everglades,"
In Miami, a federal judge broke with his customary judicial
reserve to say that Florida's new law reneges on a promise
made by the state to cut phosphorus levels under the
consent decree with the federal government. Before the
measure had even passed, Senior U.S. District Judge William
Hoeveler publicly criticized it as "clearly defective," and
said Bush was "misled by persons who do not have the best
interests of the Everglades at heart."
The governor's press office in Tallahassee would not
comment on the controversy. But Bush predicted earlier this
year that by 2006, about 95% of the water in the Everglades
will contain 10 parts per billion of phosphorus or
Many Democrats in the Legislature voted for the new
Everglades law, but the party has seized on it as a potent
issue to wield against Gov. Bush and his brother. "Our
state's most natural treasure is in peril," state Rep. Ron
Greenstein, who cast a yes vote in May, told a news
conference in June. He voted for the law, Greenstein said,
because he believed the courts would throw it out if it
In the verdant, aqueous hinterland of one of America's most
populous states, the wading birds have ended their nesting
for the year. Summer's clear, harsh sunlight is
periodically broken by lashing thunderstorms.
White egrets glide above tree islands, living flashes of
grace and beauty in this deceptively monotonous world.
In 2000, the older Bush brother carried Florida by just 537
votes, a reed-slender margin that nevertheless was enough
to make him president of the United States. Perhaps the
2004 race for the White House will be swayed by what
happens here, among the glinting, tepid water and the
sawgrass where many cattails now grow.
"If George W. gets into a close race, within 2 to 4 points
of his opponent," said Jim Kane, a Fort Lauderdale-based
pollster, "the Everglades issue might be significant."
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