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.

By John-Thor Dahlburg, Times Staff Writer

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 politics.

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 purposes."

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 sacred trust.

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 Florida.

"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 experts say.

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 threatened.

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 of Delaware.

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 Park.

"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 Agriculture.

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 cleaner.

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 organizations.

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," Tipton said.

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 less.

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 were defective.

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."

See the article on Los Angeles Times website

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