The Corps is the principal federal partner in Everglades restoration, conceive as the most ambitious and expensive environmental project ever undertaken. But the Corps is not just the principal partner. Its role in management, planning and construction of projects makes the agency the key driver despite the fact that only the state of Florida, through its South Florida Water Management District, has taxing and revenue capacity for Everglades restoration.
Every major Corps project has to be authorized by Congress. Obtaining Congressional authorization is subject to all the whims of politics. And then there is the appropriations process, another chance for special interests to put their imprimatur on the sausage that emerges at the tail pipe of federal legislation.
The partner in Everglades restoration with direct access to the taxpayer -- the state's water management district -- is also the easiest to manipulate by the campaign contributors who control the state legislature (those would be, Big Sugar billionaires). At the annual state legislative session, insider interests excel in making sure that nothing is given to the Everglades without taking at least an equal part away, if not in Everglades protections then in state regulations protecting against rampant growth or upstream water quality or farm practices that indirectly impact the Everglades.
It was hard to imagine that insiders could top this dismal formula, but they did. Three years ago, their candidate for Florida governor, Rick Scott -- in one of his first acts as newly elected chief executive -- axed the science budget of the District, thereby eliminating the capacity of the state to measure and monitor the results of Everglades restoration.
So who are Florida's Everglades activists to turn to, with state government proving obdurate at every point?
The US Army Corps of Engineers? The partner that ought to be more balanced by virtue of distance from local and state influence peddling is bogged down in the Everglades by rules and regulations superimposed as its own form of adapting to Congressional pressures. The net result is "government designed to fail", and that suits Big Sugar just fine.
Environmentalists in Florida are caught between this rock and this hard place on so many levels. Nothing is easy when it comes to getting money for the Everglades. Because funding is threatened each and every year -- whether by competing interests, by ideologues, and by special interests like Big Sugar whose fingers are relentlessly on the scale of justice -- environmentalists are timid.
They are further intimidated by worry that voters aren't paying attention, and because voters aren't paying attention that any negative news could drive both legislative support and their own contributors away.
Then there is Big Sugar, its marketing budgets, tons of PR merchandising and hundred of tons of influence with legislative processes and opportunities to put the fixes in, whenever and wherever they want. The sugar spin machine would have you believe their motives are pure and white as driven snow -- they "welcome" collaborations with the environmentalists went one recent initiative -- , and even if they would have taxpayers believe their actions can't be cast in a moral light -- because they are corporations and corporations are people -- , that they conform with the letter of the law. Big Sugar spends tens of millions of dollars a year, along these lines of persuasion.
The hardest place for the public interest may be the Corps of Engineers, an agency whose supervision of Everglades restoration is turning into the mess predicted by some environmentalists nearly fifteen years ago with the first Congressional authorization of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. At the time and with the 2000 federal Everglades plan, the White House could have put the US Department of Interior in place to be a third co-equal partner. That might have provided the single federal agency with a clear mandate to protect its national parks in a defining role. But the Clinton Administration and Senator Bob Graham caved to pressure from Big Sugar, that profits most when government programs to protect the environment are designed with built-in failure mechanisms. With Everglades "restoration". Big Sugar always exceeds its expectations along this line, notwithstanding an occasional set back in federal court.
Yesterday, the Corps could not support a plan to authorize a new piece of the Everglades puzzle because it did not meet Corps standards for quality. That piece of the puzzle is called the Central Everglades Planning Project. Although it would also take many years to complete, involving the creation of alternative engineered water flow pathways, CEPP at least gave some hope to angry, frustrated residents on both Florida coasts who have seen toxic algae blooms become so prolific that property values -- not to mention quality of life -- are being seriously impacted. A further irony is that most of the affected homeowners with the most to lose are Republicans who provably have voted against their own interests, time and again, by electing officials who do the bidding of polluters.
But these are distractions to the main folly. The US Army Corps may in fact be right to want to "go slow" on CEPP because of serious water quality issues. In other words, they may be able to engineer moving the dirty water south to the Everglades before they know if they can clean it up. The Corps' apparent concern is happening at the same time as its own inadequate contract supervision of important EXISTING Everglades restoration projects has unfolded in plain daylight.
Far out of the media spotlight in West Palm Beach, the District and the Corps have been battling over the result of the Corps' shoddy supervision of its subcontractors at one of the most critical Everglades restoration projects already authorized and funded by Congress: a water storage treatment area that is supposed to help water cleansed by man-made marshes flow into Loxahatchee national wildlife refuge. The refuge has been devastated by phosphorous laden water pouring off sugar fields for many years. As such, it is a bellwether for the remaining Everglades south and west.
The Corps' failure to adequately supervise a project that itself took many years to design and implement will cost lengthy delays and additional tens of millions in taxpayer contribution to its own ineptitude (I could but won't get into the Mod Waters project in west Miami-Dade county.)
I visited this water storage fiasco one clear Saturday in March. The lassitude of a failed project was visible -- hundreds of acres of scarified land served by faulty culverts was etched on a landscape that ought to have been humming with energy. Harmless foam barriers meant-to-do-what lazily floated by wading birds hunting for any piece of habitat suitable for feeding.
Meanwhile upstream from this man made cluster-of-mistakes, US Sugar just announced another bumper crop. The profits from sucrose just keep pumping along; from the veins of US voters straight to the healthy heart of Big Sugar. US Sugar is one of the two largest producers -- the other being the Fanjul billionaires -- expressed through Florida Crystals and various entities you can even find at Whole Foods -- and some 5.5 million tons of sugar grown in less than 200 days that poison democracy, poison the Everglades, and poison public health was extracted by US Sugar from the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee.
The purpose of the treatment marshes -- STA's as they are innocuously called -- is a work around of requiring Big Sugar to clean up its own pollution on its own land. Socialize costs, privatize profits.
One former director of Friends of the Everglades -- whose board I represent as volunteer board chair -- called Everglades restoration a test: if we pass, we may get to keep the planet. So far, we aren't doing well on either count.
Our elected representatives have the power to fix these deep, enduring problems. Instead, the airwaves are filled with talking points, bloaviating by the right-wing spin machine, and the frittering of national capital.
Public opinion poll after public opinion poll show how little regard voters have for Congress. Yet voters are ultimately responsible for the morass. The US Army Corps remains the manifestation of a bitterly divided Congress, voter apathy, and misdirection by wealthy special interests. For decades it has been clear: there has to be a better way to serve the American public's need for infrastructure protecting the economy and the environment than the US Army Corps of Engineers. But where to turn?
While do-it-yourself video editors overlay their personalized versions of dancing to Pharrell Williams hit song "Happy", Big Sugar, corporate interests and other wealthy campaign financiers freed to unlimited contributions by the Bush Supreme Court are prancing in real world, grown-up VIP rooms, thrilled how dysfunction accrues to their net worth.