Episode 3: Define Clean
One component of Everglades restoration is aimed at getting the water clean. But what constitutes clean water in the Everglades? And how to make that happen? There’s been a lot of debate about that.
We explore this in the third episode of DRAINED, a podcast from WMFE and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, about the massive plan to save the Everglades. WMFE environmental reporter Amy Green wades into the controversy around one of the most ambitious environmental restoration efforts ever undertaken.
Listen by clicking on the player above or read the transcript below.
AMY GREEN: “How long does it take to drive across the reservoir footprint, from one side to the other?”
TIM HARPER: “It takes, because the terrain is so rocky, it takes about a half an hour to get from one side of the reservoir to the other. Maybe a little bit less.”
AMY GREEN: Tim Harper and I are stopped in his pickup truck. Harper is an affable man with a salmon-colored shirt and shiny sunglasses.
TIM HARPER: “But basically if you look to the your, look to the south and you look to the north of here about two and a half miles that way’s the reservoir. Two and a half miles this way is the reservoir. That’s how big it is. We’re smack dab in the middle of the reservoir.”
AMY GREEN: “And what are we looking at right now?
TIM HARPER: “Right now this is farm fields. We’re looking at sugar cane, we’re looking at farm pumps, farm ditches. This is all heavy production. Big sugar, sugar. Farmers are here, looking to harvest pretty soon.”
AMY GREEN: “And this is going to be under 20 feet of water?”
TIM HARPER: “Yeah eventually. When the reservoir is done.”
AMY GREEN: “It’s like a reflooding of the Everglades.”
AMY GREEN: I’m Amy Green and this is DRAINED — a podcast series about the massive plan to save the Everglades.
Episode 3, “Define clean.”
Few components of Everglades restoration have drawn more debate, or are more central to its mission of reviving a more natural water flow, than a reservoir to be built south of Lake Okeechobee, among the cane fields of the Everglades Agricultural Area.
TIM HARPER: “This is where rock was blasted. If you want to get out here we can kick some rocks around, maybe.”
AMY GREEN: The Florida Legislature agreed in 2017 to jump-start construction on the reservoir in response to toxic algae, as you heard in the last episode. But sugar growers strongly opposed the reservoir on their land.
AMY GREEN: “A little slippery!”
TIM HARPER: “Yeah, be careful.”
AMY GREEN: In September I drove down to the reservoir site to see the progress for myself. Construction will not begin until 2021 or 2022, but work already was underway on an adjoining marsh or stormwater treatment area that will filter the water of nutrient pollution before it flows into Everglades National Park to the south.
TIM HARPER: “My name is Tim Harper. I’m an engineer with the South Florida Water Management District, and I’m a construction manager of the project.”
AMY GREEN: Harper showed me around. After a long drive through the cane fields, I climbed out of Harper’s truck and carefully stepped down a muddy embankment onto a construction site where workers were getting ready to blast through the limestone bedrock beneath the muck, to make way for the stormwater treatment area.
TIM HARPER: “Because this rock is so hard, you can’t just dig it up with regular equipment. You actually have to go in and blast it to break it into these chunks, and then you can start excavating with regular equipment.”
AMY GREEN: A tracked drill rig, a tall and narrow machine larger than a backhoe, was drilling holes in the bedrock where the charges would be placed for the next series of blasts.
TIM HARPER: “And then on blast day, they’ll throw the charges in there and then link everything up. And bam. You got a big explosion. The way it works is that the charges will go off in a line, and it’ll start going, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, …
TIM HARPER: “… all down the line. You’ll start seeing rocks flying up everywhere, just boom, boom, boom. And it’s a pretty cool sight.”
AMY GREEN: When the reservoir is complete, projected in 2028, it will be monumental. Together the reservoir and stormwater treatment area will cost some $3 billion. The reservoir’s earthen embankments will reach 35 feet high; the water inside will be 20 feet deep.
TIM HARPER: “The STA and the reservoir together is about the size of Manhattan.”
AMY GREEN: “And how much water are we talking about here?”
TIM HARPER: “We’re talking lots and lots of water acres. Lots and lots of acre-feet of water.”
AMY GREEN: Together the reservoir and stormwater treatment area will be able to hold some 350,000 acre-feet of water, enough to flood Manhattan with about four feet of water. The South Florida Water Management District says that will be enough to stem the water flow east and west from Lake Okeechobee by more than half.
Harper says the idea is to recreate the historic Everglades here, as much as possible. Eventually the plan is to open the reservoir and stormwater treatment area to the public for recreation, like biking, fishing and hunting.
TIM HARPER: “It’s going to be gorgeous. I mean, it’s going to be, it’s going to look very beautiful and pristine, like a beautiful pristine wetland. You know, hopefully similar to what historically the Everglades used to look like with a lot of sawgrass, you know, alligators, all the different birds. There’s thousands of varieties of different birds.
“So hopefully we can bring all those native animals and native plants back into this area that help treat this water and clean it up. So we can move it south.”
AMY GREEN: I’ve told you about how Everglades restoration is aimed at restoring a more natural water flow in the river of grass, and how it also involves retaining more of the water that is now being dumped at the coasts. But none of these measures will mean much if the water is not clean, and that leads us to one of the more fascinating narratives, I think, in Everglades restoration: How to define clean water in the Everglades? And how to clean it up?
President Bill Clinton signed Everglades restoration into law in December 2000, but debate over the river of grass really began in earnest back in 1988. That was when the federal government sued the state of Florida over sugar growers’ pollution in the Everglades.
Specifically at issue was phosphorus flowing from the Everglades Agricultural Area, which we’ve talked about in previous episodes. Here farmers raise vegetables, rice and half of the nation’s sugar cane, making the region the country’s primary producer of the crop. The lawsuit contended the state was violating its own water quality laws by allowing the politically powerful sugar growers to discard polluted farm water in the protected Everglades.
Phosphorus is a nutrient that helps plants grow. Too much of it in waterways can feed harmful algae blooms in the same way it nourishes crops and front lawns as part of our fertilizers. But the problem in the Everglades was a little different: Historically there was almost no phosphorus in the river of grass, says Fred Sklar of the South Florida Water Management District.
FRED SKLAR: “Once people came along and started fertilizing their front lawns, when agriculture came along and fertilized their crops and when just in general there’s a runoff from civilization that was actually pumped into the Everglades to get rid of it for flood control, it created a nutrient problem.”
AMY GREEN: Back then the biggest sign of trouble was not harmful algae blooms but cattails, which were supplanting the sawgrass at such a rate the situation was existential: Very soon there no longer would be a river of grass.
But before filing the lawsuit the federal prosecutor wanted to know the threshold: How much was too much phosphorus in the fragile Everglades? He called someone who would know.
RON JONES: “My name is Dr. Ronald Jones, and I’m a scientist that worked in the Florida Everglades for nearly 30 years. And I have since moved to Oregon, and I work at Willamette University as an instrumentation specialist.”
RON JONES: “I just told him 10 parts per billion. That’s the standard answer that you would get from the textbooks, from all of the studies that have ever been done and work of hundreds of other scientists.”
AMY GREEN: 10 parts per billion. It’s an incredibly small amount.
RON JONES: “I really can’t explain. It’s so small, that it’s, a part per billion is less than a drop of chlorine in your in your swimming pool. I mean, it’s just that tiny of an amount.”
FRED SKLAR: “Ten parts per billion is a higher quality water than your own drinking water. The water that comes out of the Everglades, historically, not necessarily anymore, but historically, a person could just take a cup of water, a cup and drink right out of it. It was really clean, transparent water.”
AMY GREEN: The federal prosecutor filed the lawsuit, with Jones as his star witness. And then:
RON JONES: “It went viral. And in that day and age there was no computers to go viral on, but it was in all the papers in the newspapers across the country. And it was it was a major, major event that was taking place.”
AMY GREEN: By the early ’90s it was the most complex and highest-profile environmental lawsuit in the country. The state spent millions of dollars fighting it. Court clerks wheeled the case file around in shopping carts.
RON JONES: “My first deposition that took place – it was the first time, I was the first scientist and the only scientists that was deposed at that time – it took seven days, and I had probably 15 bankers boxes full of papers that came with me into that into that room.”
AMY GREEN: Then in 1993 – in a scene that is the stuff of legend in Florida environmental history – then-Gov. Lawton Chiles admitted the state was guilty. In a Miami courtroom the governor declared:
LAWTON CHILES: “I am ready to stipulate today that the water is dirty!”
AMY GREEN: That’s WMFE’s Juan Gualda voicing the former governor.
LAWTON CHILES: “I am here, and I brought my sword. I want to find out who I can give that sword to!”
RON JONES: “He did make a figurative motion with his hands of laying his sword down onto the ground.”
LAWTON CHILES: “What I am asking is to let us use our troops to clean up the battlefield now, to make this water clean.”
LAWTON CHILES: “We want to surrender!”
RON JONES: “Everybody sat there with their mouths open, and we were not expecting Gov. Chiles to come in and basically say, mea culpa to the federal judge, to Judge Hoeveler. So I mean, everybody was caught off guard. I think the only person that really wasn’t caught off guard was the governor himself.”
AMY GREEN: The federal government and state reached a settlement, which led to a consent decree requiring the state and sugar growers to clean up the water. But the consent decree did not specify how much phosphorus actually was OK. That number was to be figured out later.
And teeny-tiny 10 parts per billion became a major political football.
FRED SKLAR: “There were three institutions involved in trying to find that number.”
AMY GREEN: There was Duke University, which was paid by the sugar growers. There was Florida International University, which was paid by the Miccosukee tribe. The tribe is based on a federally designated reservation in the Everglades. And then there was the South Florida Water Management District.
For years the groups fought over whether the standard for phosphorus in the Everglades should be 10 parts per billion – or something else.
FRED SKLAR: “It was so stressful.”
It was important because at stake were millions of dollars in Everglades cleanup costs. A standard of 100 parts per billion would be much easier to meet than 10 parts per billion.
FRED SKLAR: “We had people who actually, who talked to me after they were subpoenaed to be in front of the court to talk about the giant cattail infestation and who was to blame. And they were so burnt out from it, they were ready to quit. They weren’t used to being treated like criminals.”
AMY GREEN: Ron Jones especially came under attack as the federal government’s star witness. The opposing groups sought to discredit his work. After one meeting he went home and threw up.
RON JONES: “It was a very frightening time for me and also very exhilarating time because I had a lot of good people, really good people surrounding me that were working for the Everglades, and that was a great comfort.”
AMY GREEN: In 2001 the Florida Department of Environmental Protection set the standard at 10 parts per billion. But now there was a new problem.
FRED SKLAR: “Well, no one knew how to get there.”
RON JONES: “And so the argument was then you can’t do it.”
FRED SKLAR: “And so a massive technology search went into effect to try and figure out how in the world do we get to 10 parts per billion?”
AMY GREEN: One option was enormous sludge-producing chemical treatment factories.
FRED SKLAR: “I think the first level of agreement was to build stormwater treatment areas with a target of 50 parts per billion coming out of the that. Everyone assumed that that was the best they were going to do.”
AMY GREEN: Stormwater treatment areas are engineered wetlands designed to function in the same way the historic Everglades did: as a sieve. The murky farm water enters the marshes, and the vegetative tissues absorb the nutrients. Slowly over time the water flows clear as it once did.
Construction began on a series of filter marshes that together would be the largest in the world.
FRED SKLAR: “The scale of this was beyond anyone’s imagination, quite frankly.
“I think right now we’re about at 55,000 acres of created wetlands. That’s more created wetland than anyone has ever created by at least an order of magnitude. The most anyone’s ever created, I think it’s 5,000. We did 55,000 acres. It’s impressive.
“I’m going to give you an idea of of how big that is: If you were to fly over that many acres, were to fly over our STAs, and there’s six of them, it would take you about 40 minutes in a helicopter traveling at 150 miles an hour.”
AMY GREEN: Today the state has spent some $2 billion on the phosphorus problem in the Everglades, including the stormwater treatment areas. The filter marshes are working, but not completely.
The South Florida Water Management District says some 90% of the water in the river of grass now meets the 10 parts per billion standard.
RON JONES: “They’re still building STAs up in the Everglades Agricultural Area and north of Lake Okeechobee. So these are huge. These are, they’re engineering projects that are considered to be you know, nothing of the kind exists anywhere else.”
But the stormwater treatment areas represent only half of the solution to the dirty farm water.
AMY GREEN: “It’s a peaceful sound, the sound of the breeze among the stalks.
RICK ROTH: “Yeah, that’s what I like about living in south Florida. When you’re, if you’re sitting at home and you have palm trees in your backyard, and you can hear the wind rustling through the palm trees. It’s a nice sound. The same thing with sugar cane. Again, it’s a nice sound hearing, hearing the leaves.”
AMY GREEN: The stormwater treatment areas are one of two main components in the plan to clean up the farm water before it reaches the Everglades.
RICK ROTH: “My name is Rick Roth. I’m the president of Roth Farms. I’ve been the primary owner of a family farm since 1986.”
RICK ROTH: “We are looking at a field of sugarcane that’s about 10 to 12 foot tall. This field here, if I had to guess, was probably harvested in December or January.”
AMY GREEN: Sugar growers like Roth also have to stem the flow of their own phosphorus.
RICK ROTH: “We’re considered to be a medium-size farmer in the Everglades Agricultural Area. There’s farmers that own as little as 500 acres, and there’s farmers that own over 100,000 acres. So we’re considered to be a medium-sized farmer.
“We grow about 20 different kinds of vegetables, red radishes, lettuce, sweet corn, celery, and all kinds of other vegetables: cilantro, parsley, Chinese cabbage, dill. We grow about 20 different kinds of vegetables, also grow sugarcane, also grow rice. We’ve been growing rice for over 40 years, harvesting rice and we even grow sod.”
AMY GREEN: To do this, sugar growers are required to apply a series of farming techniques they helped develop called best management practices. The practices involve things like using less fertilizer and adjusting irrigation techniques.
RICK ROTH: “Some other examples of BMPs are growing cover crops like rice in the summertime. So you’re building the soil back up, and you’re holding the water for longer periods of times. It’s cleaning your ditches to make sure that the soil is not being flushed into the canals with rainfall. So you clean your ditches regularly, you clean your canals.”
RICK ROTH: “And so by us changing the way we handle the water before we pump it off the farm, changing the way we put out the fertilizer, to put it in the bed instead of on top of the bed, we’ve reduced the amount of nutrients that are running off the off the field with the soil.”
AMY GREEN: Sugar growers have gone beyond what is required of them, reducing the flow of phosphorus from the Everglades Agricultural Area by some 55% on average over the past 20 years. The requirement is applied regionally, not individually. And this means that if there are one or two farms whose phosphorus levels actually are increasing, that is OK as long as the region as a whole meets the requirement, which it has.
RICK ROTH: “It’s virtually impossible for me to move to another state and start farming. It’s not that I can’t do it. It’s just so different. It’s a total different soil. It’s a total different water management. It’s a total different state structure. It’s a total different nutrients required. It’s a total different marketing system. You’re growing different crops.
“So my best choice is to stay here and do the job right and enjoy being a farmer in the EAA. And it’s really cool when you think about it. That’s what life is really all about. It’s about dealing with challenges, whether it’s your marriage, or your kids in college, or whatever. It’s about working through the problems, working with people, and it’s worth building a relationship where you can try new things and get things done.
“And it’s a very satisfying feeling.”
AMY GREEN: Finally progress in Everglades restoration. The water is cleaner, even if it is not fully clean. Projects are in the works aimed at holding onto more water and moving it south as it once flowed, rather than east and west.
But, with Florida’s climate changing at an accelerating rate, will it all be in time to save the fragile river of grass — and south Florida’s drinking water supply?
AMY GREEN: Next on DRAINED Episode 4, “Neverending restoration” —
CHARLES LEE: “Space travel, to the degree we accomplished it going to the moon and back, was a cinch when you compare it to the complexities of the hydrology of the Everglades.”
AMY GREEN: DRAINED is a podcast from WMFE and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. It’s reported and hosted by me, Amy Green, and edited by Trevor Aaronson and Matthew Peddie. Mix and sound design by Paul Vaitkus. Mac Dula, Jenny Babcock and Ryan Ellison provided additional production help. Cliff Tumetel also contributed. Special thanks to Johns Hopkins University Press.
Thanks for listening.
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