Op Ed: Case of the Missing Everglades Restoration Coverage

One of the oddest mysteries of last week is what happened to media coverage of the progress on Everglades restoration. Long Senate and House committee meetings Thursday were devoted to it.

But then I thought about it, and I believe I know:

There actually is progress on water quality in the Everglades, especially due to effective water management programs.

We can’t write that in Florida newspapers.

If we’re going to report on the Everglades, we don’t have a story unless there is measurable degradation. I’m talking about bad news the state press corps can grind to a pulp: declining wildlife, polluted drinking water, the invasion of non-native species.

We in the press are going to take our lead not from government agencies that have no time for the blame game. We’re going straight to the sources we can trust: environmentalists like the Everglades Foundation.

For some reason, as on display last week, we don’t acknowledge that the Foundation — however worthy its goals — is not a government agency, that it is not charged with producing and analyzing factual data, that it is not wholly objective but is a privately funded, political activist lobby.

In the press, we look to the Foundation as The Authority.


The Foundation is no more spin-free than the sugar industry it maligns. Each is a special interest group with a case to make, a self-serving story to tell. But if we’re looking for a truly objective voice and we’ve got an alternative, why wouldn’t we take it?

During Thursday’s Everglades presentations, we had Ernie Barnett, Everglades policy director for the South Florida Water Management District, explaining the District’s “best management practices” (BMPs) database and reports. His message was clear: Practices put in place by the agriculture industry and the District have resulted in a “River of Grass” that is in better shape today than it was 20 years ago.

“We’ve seen a 55 percent phosphorus reduction over 16 years,” Barnett told the committees. “Our BMPs have prevented 2,565 tons of phosphorus from leaving the Everglades Agricultural Area.”

A good story? Why the improvement?

* The state has invested $1.8 billion in Everglades restoration.

* Everglades farmers have paid $200 million in an “agricultural privilege” tax.

* Farmers put another $200 million into implementing on-farm BMPs.

* Ongoing partnerships led by the South Florida Water Management District.

Generally, the Thursday meetings were cordial. But, during the end of the House presentations, Philip Parsons, a representative of the Florida Sugar Cane League, told legislators that the phosphorus farmers were discharging was one-third the amount the Everglades Foundation had claimed. The Foundation took issue. Barnett said the organizations were making “an apples and oranges” comparison and committee members were left largely in a quandary.

“For the record, we weren’t disputing the Foundation’s data,” Barnett told me. “We realize their calculations perhaps involve all flows into stormwater treatment areas. We were just presenting our data.

“Having said that, we’re very confident in the way we describe the performance of our BMP program,” he said.

Everglades restoration is a colossal undertaking with a long way to go — a minimum of 12 years, even if CERP projects continue being funded at full strength by all stakeholders, at every level of government, and construction stays on schedule. Seems to me it might help Floridians maintain their focus and enthusiasm if they could celebrate the program’s successes along the way.

Thursday generally was a good-news day for the Florida Everglades. I’m sorry the media largely gave it a miss.  – Nancy Smith, Sunshine State News

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