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Delayed Everglades restoration prompts Palm Beach County leader to question state, federal 'courage'

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Frustrated with stalled Everglades restoration, Palm Beach County Commission Chairwoman Karen Marcus contends that federal and state officials lack the "courage" to get it done.

One year ago, Palm Beach County imposed a moratorium on new rock mines that were spreading across farmland that environmental groups said may be needed for Everglades restoration.

The county’s moratorium is set to expire in August, but efforts to reshape Everglades restoration plans remain on hold and state and federal officials have yet to commit to what additional land in the vast Everglades Agricultural Area may be needed.

Amid the indecision on the future of Everglades restoration, Palm Beach County commissioners on Tuesday opted not to support the tougher regulatory hurdles for new rock mines sought by environmental groups.

Rock mining companies as well as the sugar cane growers that own much of the land in the Everglades Agricultural Area opposed tougher standards for new mines.

Federal and state officials, including the South Florida Water Management District, lack the "courage" to more clearly define what land is needed for restoration and what land could be used for mining, according to Marcus.

"I think they are afraid," Marcus said. "I think they are afraid of the landowners."

The Everglades Agriculture Area includes hundreds of thousands of acres south of Lake Okeechobee, including much of western Palm Beach County.

Water once naturally overflowed the banks of Lake Okeechobee’s southern rim, slowly flowing all the way south to Florida Bay – fueling the Everglades’ River of Grass.

Decades of draining land to make way for sugar cane and other crops, in what would become the Everglades Agricultural Area, cut off that natural water flow.

Long-term Everglades restoration plans call for building more stormwater storage and treatment facilities in the agricultural area to recreate water flows to hydrate what remains of the Everglades.

But Everglades restoration remains behind schedule after a decade of funding delays and changes in state and federal leadership. That leaves questions about which land in the Everglades Agricultural Area could be needed for water storage and treatment.

The South Florida Water Management District, which leads Everglades restoration for the state, once planned to buy all of the more than 180,000 acres owned by U.S. Sugar Corp. to help restore water flows between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

The country’s economic downturn shrunk that nearly $2 billion land deal championed by former Gov. Charlie Crist to 26,800 acres costing $197 million. Since then, new Gov. Rick Scott has pushed for  cost-cutting measures at the district that limit the agency’s ability to buy the rest of the U.S. Sugar land.

New plans for restoration in the Everglades Agricultural Area remain "very, very far away," said Dean Powell, of the water management district.

"We won’t have the property to construct that flow way," Powell said.

Environmental groups contend that the digging and blasting of rock mining threaten to eat up land needed for Everglades restoration. They also argue that the deep pits can lead to contaminated water supplies.

Rock mines produce material used to build roads and for other construction.

Before the moratorium, the county commission had already approved about 24,000 acres of rock mining in the Everglades Agricultural Area since 2006.

Sugar cane growers in the Everglades Agricultural Area have increasingly explored rock mining as a way to diversify their operations.

State legislators passed a law that won’t allow the county to continue its rock mining moratorium beyond August.

Marcus maintains that there should be a "higher threshold" for determining whether to allow more mining.

State and federal officials need to hurry up and determine what land is needed for Everglades restoration before it ends up as rock mines, according to Marcus.

"You need to fix that hole," Marcus said about restoration plans for the Everglades Agricultural Area. "We don’t want to impede … Everglades restoration."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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