Florida Gov. Jeb Bush plans to announce an ambitious plan Thursday to accelerate the flagging $8 billion effort to restore the Everglades ecosystem, shifting a great deal of power over the largest environmental initiative in history from his brother's federal government to his own state government three weeks before Election Day.
Gov. Bush's plan -- dubbed "Acceler8" because it aims to complete eight major projects to expand water storage, improve water quality and restore water flows by 2010 -- would speed up the current 30-year effort to revive South Florida's subtropical wilderness while enhancing flood control and water supply for cities and farms.
The state will shoulder the $1.5 billion cost of Acceler8 and take the lead on its design and construction -- a significant departure from the coequal federal-state partnership that President Bill Clinton signed into law with Gov. Bush at his side in December 2000.
Several environmentalists and other critics said they liked the idea of jump-starting the Everglades project, which has fallen about two years behind schedule in less than four years, but expressed broad skepticism about Acceler8. They argued that it smacks of election-year politics, gives flood control and water supply a higher priority than restoring the ecosystem and proves that the Everglades project has bogged down on President Bush's watch.
But Florida officials said the governor was determined to get the project moving faster, regardless of the political consequences in his swing state. They said Gov. Bush anticipated that environmental activists who oppose his brother's reelection would quibble about his plan but told his aides: "We don't need their permission to save the Everglades."
They said the need for Acceler8 -- especially its six major reservoirs designed to store excess storm water for urban, agricultural and environmental uses -- was demonstrated by the four recent hurricanes that hit the state, forcing water managers to dump 325 billion precious gallons out to sea to prevent flooding.
"The governor didn't want to wait a thousand years to see results," said Michael Collins, a South Florida Water Management District board member who helped develop the plan. "We're saying: Enough paralysis by analysis. Let's get some projects in the ground."
James L. Connaughton, head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, emphasized that the federal-state partnership to save the Everglades remained intact and said it was strengthened by the relationship between the Bush brothers. After months of negotiations, state officials pledged to abide by all the environmental and procedural safeguards in the 2000 law, as their federal counterparts had demanded.
Connaughton acknowledged that Acceler8 does not include the projects with the most direct benefits to the remaining Everglades, especially Everglades National Park. But he said that allowing the state to take the lead on Acceler8 will help federal agencies focus on projects to remove levees inside the Everglades, reduce the seepage of fresh water out of the area and elevate some of the highway that cuts through it.
"This is an exciting moment for Everglades restoration," said Connaughton, who is to join the governor for Thursday's announcement at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. "It's taken some extra time, but now we've created a solid foundation where we can move ahead much faster."
Acceler8 includes three environmental projects at the edge of the Everglades: one to restore coastal wetlands near Biscayne Bay, and the others to restore natural water flows into Florida Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands. Most of the project's other elements are reservoirs that will provide extra water for the natural system and reduce some harmful discharges to the natural system, but also send water to farms and suburbs.
That is not enough of an ecological focus to dissolve the distrust of environmentalists such as Shannon Estenoz, a former co-chairman of the Everglades Coalition. The coalition has accused Gov. Bush's administration of relaxing water-quality standards to appease the sugar industry, and President Bush's administration of writing rules for the Everglades project that failed to give restoration priority.
"Now they're saying they're going to do right by the Everglades?" she asked. "Where have they been for the last four years?"
The Miccosukee Tribe is also suspicious of the new plan, said tribal spokeswoman Joette Lorian. After filing a host of lawsuits over the years to force Everglades officials to comply with the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act, the tribe is now concerned that Acceler8 could turn into an end run around those laws. "The tribe is used to empty promises from politicians," Lorian said.
Half the Everglades is gone now, drained for agriculture or paved for development. The other half is an ecological mess, fragmented by ditches and dikes, polluted by sugar fields and gated communities, parched during droughts and overwhelmed during floods.
In 2000, Congress and the Florida legislature overwhelmingly approved an $8 billion plan to try to restore some semblance of the original Everglades, while ensuring enough flood control and drinking water for South Florida to double its population by 2020. But the project soon began to lag.
The clearest obstacle was the federal budget crisis, which is why state officials decided to raise funds for Acceler8 through a financing mechanism similar to bonds. But Collins said that inertia and obstructionism within the federal government were almost as stifling. He said that the president's political appointees tried their best to instill a sense of urgency among federal bureaucrats, but that interagency meetings among 80 people just were not conducive to action.
"It was like the theory that if you give a thousand monkeys enough typewriters, then maybe they'll write the Bible," Collins said. "We didn't have that long to wait."
The first federal attempt to restore the Everglades, a 1989 effort to rehydrate a parched section of the park, offers a cautionary tale: It is more than a decade overdue and nearly 300 percent over budget. Connaughton had hoped to announce a final plan to complete the project at Thursday's ceremony, but he could not, because there is no final plan.
Skeptics such as Lorian ask: If government officials cannot build an $85 million project -- now a $313 million project, and counting -- how are they going to build an $8 billion project?