WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has decided to endorse a huge project to protect the Everglades by spending hundreds of millions of dollars to take farmland out of production and restore a more natural flow of fresh water across Florida's swampy southern half, according to senior administration officials.
Environmentalists have been urging such a project for years over intense opposition from the region's sugar cane growers.
It would be one of the biggest ecological restoration efforts ever undertaken, the administration officials said.
Over the next 10 to 20 years, its effects would be felt across a region bursting with some of the nation's fastest-growing metropolitan areas, where tourism and agriculture vie in an economy that has grown at the expense of an aquatic ecosystem unlike any other on the planet.
The plan is expected to be announced by Vice President Al Gore tomorrow at Everglades National Park.
The park contains the most pristine remnants of the vast marsh of saw grass that was largely drained earlier in the century, either to be turned into farmland or to supply cities with water and protect them from floods.
The Everglades restoration project has been in planning for three years, during continuous debate over its effects on agriculture, urban water supplies and the environment.
This will be the first time the White House has given the enormous project its blessing or declared that the sugar industry must help pay for it, as environmentalists have been demanding for years.
Financed by fees
The proposed expansion of existing efforts to reverse the Everglades' decline would be financed in part by fees imposed on the region's sugar industry, administration officials said.
For years environmentalists, who blame sugar growers for much of the harm to the Everglades, have been campaigning to impose a 2-cent tax on every pound of sugar produced in the Everglades region.
The administration is expected to endorse a 1-cent tax, although other options have also been discussed.
Many elements of the administration's plan, including any new fees on the sugar industry, would have to be approved by Congress, where the prospects for action this year are uncertain.
But administration officials noted that restoring the Everglades is a popular cause in the Florida congressional delegation and said they have high hopes of winning approval.
Administration officials called the new plan one of the most significant environmental initiatives of the Clinton presidency, surpassing in scope even the famous plan for managing the spotted owl habitat of the Pacific Northwest forests.
It calls for the federal government to spend an additional $500 million or more during the next several years, on top of the $100 million or so that federal agencies already spend each year to protect the Everglades.
The additional spending is a much bigger expansion than the Senate recently approved in passing a new farm bill.
It represents something of a bidding war, just before the Florida presidential primaries, between the administration and top Republicans, including candidates Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas.
The White House decision to push ahead attests to the political potency that the administration attributes to environmental issues, and to the importance of Florida in the presidential campaign.
Environmental groups are welcoming the administration's approach.
"We are talking about a lot of money, we are talking about a lot of land, and we are talking about ecosystem restoration on a scale we have never seen before anywhere in the world," said Ron Tipton, who is in charge of the Everglades project at the World Wildlife Fund.
In effect, the plan would attempt to erase much of the human signature that has been etched with levees, canals and pumping stations on the central and southern Florida landscape in the past half-century.
"This is the replumbing of South Florida," said one senior administration official.
At the core of the plan is what scientists call an urgent need to restore the natural hydrologic patterns before the Everglades disappear entirely.
In the past, water flowed south from the headwaters of the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee, where it overflowed seasonally, spilling over the lake's southern shores and drifting in a broad, grassy sheet down the ever-so-subtle slope to Florida Bay.
Now, that terrain is crisscrossed by a thousand miles of canals and levees, some of which divert the system's water directly out to the Atlantic tides.
While it is impossible to contemplate a complete return to the natural water cycles of a hundred years ago, with their extensive floods, studies have shown how to imitate some of the natural rhythms of the water flow, without which the vestiges of the Everglades would likely continue to dwindle.
According to specialists involved in the planning, it requires two things: an engineering project on the scale of the one that took decades to drain the land at midcentury, and the purchase of a huge swath of land, on the order of 100,000 acres, mostly at the southern end of the Everglades Agricultural Area below Lake Okeechobee.