Congress has approved a plan to destroy 77 homes at the edge of Everglades National Park, jump-starting efforts to restore flows to the ailing River of Grass after 14 years of delay.
The compromise measure to buy out the most flood-prone portion of what is known as the 8.5 Square Mile Area, a tight-knit Cuban American neighborhood of mango groves and horse pastures, was supported by President Bush and Gov. Jeb Bush (R), as well as by regulators and environmentalists. Tucked into last week's $397 billion budget bill, it would revive the Modified Water Deliveries Project of 1989, a long-stalled plan to rehydrate the parched eastern side of the park.
The revival of "Mod Waters" would also help the much larger $8.4 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the most ambitious environmental project in history. The law authorizing the overall Everglades restoration in 2000 specified that several key elements could not proceed until Mod Waters is complete.
"The logjam is broken," said Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), the original sponsor of Mod Waters as well as the new measure to get it moving. Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.) also helped push the buyout, overcoming property-rights opposition from Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).
Environmentalists had pushed for a buyout of the entire 8.5 Square Mile Area, but most were happy with the compromise, which is to buy out 44 percent of the land and 12 percent of the homes. The residents of the area, however, were furious, even though their congressman, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), attached language requiring the Army Corps of Engineers to offer owners of the 77 affected homes land elsewhere in the neighborhood.
Today, the residents held a protest rally in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood, accusing Jeb Bush of turning his back on Cuban American supporters. They carried signs, in English and Spanish, vowing: We will not sell.
"This is a shameful travesty," said Alice Pena, president of the local homeowners group. "We're going to keep fighting."
The one bright side, Pena said, was the language assuring the residents a chance to stay in the 8.5 Square Mile Area, even though it is now slated to become a 4.5 square-mile area. Many residents had suggested that the compromise plan was part of a government conspiracy to ease them out of the neighborhood, but Pena said the new language suggests that the neighborhood is here to stay.
"It's a bit of a relief," she said. "We're very disappointed, though. We live in America. We're supposed to have rights."
The original Mod Waters plan would have protected the entire neighborhood, but park officials warned that it would also drain 30,000 acres of Everglades wetlands, defeating the purpose of the plan. The compromise, they say, will allow true restoration.