The Risky Business of Restoring Florida's Everglades

Judge's order creates twists, turns - and opportunities

This page was published 13 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

Since a recent judicial order in Florida’s efforts to restore the Everglades hit the news, many people are asking: What does it mean?

The short answer is that it creates both risks and opportunities.

The twists and turns of this case are pretty complex, so let me explain what Federal Judge Mareno’s order does. The judge granted a motion to force the South Florida Water Management District to spend $700 million to build a reservoir in the southern Everglades Agricultural Area.

This reservoir was once an important part of Everglades restoration, but it was mothballed —and rightly so—when Florida negotiated a deal to buy 73,000 acres of U.S. Sugar Company’s land for $536 million. The reservoir was part of extensive waterworks project to engineer around the vast Everglades holdings of U.S. Sugar. The overall idea is to clean water as it flows southward down the Florida peninsula into Everglades National Park and finally into marine-rich Florida Bay.

Once the state struck a deal to buy U.S. Sugar’s land, the state switched gears and quit working on the reservoir project. If the land deal goes through, there’s no need to engineer around U.S. Sugar’s land, since it will be publicly owned and water managers will be able to create a flow-way right through it.

The South Florida Water Management District has proposed to build water-treatment facilities on the U.S. Sugar land, closer to Lake Okeechobee, and turn the unfinished reservoir into a treatment area that would filter pollutants.

U.S. Sugar’s primary competitor, Florida Crystals, along with the Miccosukee Tribe, filed the motion to keep the reservoir project alive. The Tribe and Florida Crystals have waged a fierce legal and lobbying war to derail the U.S. Sugar deal. Florida Crystals wants the reservoir to store water to irrigate its cane fields, and the Miccosukee Tribe is seeking to keep the original restoration plan in place—including the mothballed reservoir project.

So where does this leave us? The judge left open windows to completing the U.S. Sugar purchase. What may happen now is that we may amend our 22-year-old consent decree—the original settlement that forced Florida to halt the flow of pollution into the Everglades—to deal with the issue of the reservoir. The judge did not order an immediate restart of the reservoir, but instead ordered hearings to set construction deadlines before a Special Master.

We’ll be negotiating for changes to the original consent decree to accommodate Florida’s new approach, and we will hopefully end up with a better restoration plan in the long run.

Progress in this case flows slowly, but we are committed to the long haul, keeping Everglades restoration on track.

David Guest worked at Earthjustice from 1990 to 2016, as the managing attorney of the Florida regional office. His countless legal battles were, in one way or another, all about water. His motivation to protect Florida’s water came from years of running boats in the state’s rivers and lakes, which convinced him that waterways are many people’s spiritual connection to nature.