Trump’s budget would eliminate Everglades water testing program

THE NEWS-PRESS Washington bureau
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Fallow land and green sugar cane are divided into rectangular fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area, which borders a rim canal and natural marsh land in Lake Okeechobee in this 2005 photo.


WASHINGTON - A system that tracks the health of the Everglades is among the environmental programs President Trump wants to abolish.

For more than 20 years, the little-known South Florida Geographic Initiative has been monitoring the threat of phosphorous, mercury and other damaging nutrients seeping into the ecologically fragile region — sometimes with dramatic results.

The data it collected for the Environmental Protection Agency and Florida agencies was key to a massive court-ordered settlement in 2012 to protect the River of Grass from encroaching pollution.

The initiative is now among more than 50 EPA programs the administration has proposed eliminating in an effort to return “the responsibility for funding local environmental efforts and programs to state and local entities, allowing EPA to focus on its highest national priorities,” according to Trump’s budget outline released last month.

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A key watchdog group said ending the South Florida program would have devastating consequences because of the value pollution data provides in shaping Everglades restoration activities.

“It gives you an idea (of whether) things are improving or not improving, and the rate at which they’re improving or not improving,” said Tom Van Lent, director of programs at the Everglades Foundation. Eliminating the initiative “would cripple the federal government’s role in maintaining water quality for the Everglades and basically blind us to what’s going on out there.”

Florida Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, speaks with Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, during a Florida Senate session on Jan. 13, 2016, at the Florida Senate in Tallahassee.

It was data showing nutrient pollution far worse than believed that formed the basis for a lawsuit that led to an important court decision five years ago, Van Lent said.

In 2012, a federal judge in Miami ordered the state to spend $880 million on water quality improvement facilities to reduce the flow of damaging nutrients from farm, ranches and yards into the Everglades.

The EPA lists a number of accomplishments achieved through South Florida Geographic Initiative over the past two decades including identifying new water quality treatment projects, partnering with other agencies to replace 25,000 ineffective septic tanks, 4000 cesspits, and 900 shallow wells, and improving the overall quality of the region’s water.

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Approximately 90 percent of the Everglades is now meeting water quality standards, according to the South Florida Water Management District.

The initiative also monitors the health of coral reefs in South Florida as well as the health of water quality in the Keys.

The program was already facing budget cuts before Trump’s proposal to eradicate it. Congress authorized $1.7 million in 2016 but President Obama recommended only $1.34 million in his 2017 budget on which lawmakers have yet to act.

Water from Lake Okeechobee pours through the St. Lucie Lock and Dam near Stuart on June 16, 2016.

Trump has proposed eliminating funding for similar environmental initiatives targeting the Great Lakes region and the Chesapeake Bay, part of a 31 percent cut to the EPA the Republican-controlled Congress is being asked to consider.

John Garder, director of Budget and Appropriations for National Parks Conservation Association, called the cuts to water restoration efforts “nothing short of alarming.”

Kristin Jacobs, a Democratic Florida House lawmaker whose Broward County district borders the Everglades, said she’s not too worried about the budget proposal

“There isn’t any shortage of support on both sides of the aisle here in Florida and I think they will bend the president’s ear on that topic,” she said. Support for the Everglades “is something this state has long treasured.”

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However, President Trump supported the Florida Everglades at a rally in Naples back in October.

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