Voters approved billions to save land and fix the Everglades. Then things got messy

A white pelican in the shallows of Snake Bight in Everglades National Park.
A white pelican in the shallows of Snake Bight in Everglades National Park. MIAMI HERALD Staff

A 2014 Florida constitutional amendment that was supposed to take politics out of state environmental spending has had an unintended consequence: dividing the state’s powerful environmental groups.

Amendment 1 set aside billions over the next two decades to save disappearing wild lands, fix the Everglades and protect increasingly polluted water. Instead, it sparked a legal fight that is playing out in Tallahassee, with sides squared off over how the money should be spent.

This summer, three years after environmentalists sued to stop lawmakers from paying for salaries, maintenance and other projects they said defied voters’ wishes, a judge seemingly awarded a victory to all environmentalists. Leon County Judge Charles Dodson agreed that lawmakers had indeed failed to buy and restore land. He then went on to define the purpose of the amendment.

“The clear intent was to create a trust fund to purchase new conservation lands and take care of them,” he wrote.

That simple sentence, Everglades advocates say, now stands to derail one of the biggest restoration projects on the horizon: a 17,000-acre deepwater reservoir on state-owned land aimed at reducing polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee that regularly foul the coasts with slimy algae blooms. The project is expected to cost the state close to $1 billion and would be paid for with up to $264 million a year slated for Everglades work from the trust.

“If the decision stands, that victory is wiped out,” Everglades Foundation Chief Operating Officer Shannon Estenoz said at a January Everglades Coalition conference, because it would prohibit work on land already owned by the state.

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Over the summer, algae blooms coated stretches of the Caloosahatchee River, including this area near LaBelle, west of Lake Okeechobee. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

But for other environmentalists, who believe too many high-tech plumbing projects have taken the place of buying and restoring more marshes and other disappearing lands, the ruling better protects their mission. It also keeps the trust from being raided for money to fix leaky septic tanks, aging wastewater treatment plants or other projects with a tenuous environmental connection.

“The Everglades Foundation is very powerful. They’re very effective, and able to get their funding, which most of the time is a good thing,” said Sierra Club Florida director Frank Jackalone. “But right now we have some problems with where this is heading.”

Earlier this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis, who included Foundation director Eric Eikenberg on his environmental transition team, vowed to spend $2.5 billion on environmental issues over the next four years. But it’s not yet clear where the money will come from or how specifically it will be spent.

The ruling, now under appeal, has also drawn objections from a half dozen groups whose interests could be excluded under the decision, including the Florida League of Cities, utilities and associations that promote beach and springs restoration. All have filed or plan to file briefs with the appeals court outlining arguments they say were not considered in the summary judgment made without the benefit of a trial.

When it was first pitched to voters, the amendment was intended to provide a reliable flow of cash — between $794 million and $1.6 billion over the next two decades — for conservation work. It drew support for its broad goals from a wide swath of Florida, from kayakers to gardeners. The reservoir was included in the pitch to voters. But at the time, it was a vastly different project: a shallow, marsh-like 60,000-acre reservoir more in keeping with the landscape around it. To build it, the state would need to buy thousands more acres from sugar farmers, who opposed the deal.

In September, Governor-elect Ron DeSantis, back left, toured Everglades marshes to get a better understanding of the restoration efforts. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Instead, lawmakers pressured by the sugar industry approved a project less than a third of the size on land already owned by the state and three times as deep and eliminated an outstanding option to buy, the last in a failed deal that proposed buying about 187,000 acres of sugar fields blamed for pollution. The plan has come under scrutiny by scientists who worry it won’t be able to provide clean water.

“At the time everybody, including the Everglades Foundation, was talking about a shallow reservoir,” Jackalone said. “But since that time, this grand deal has been made.”

Reservoir plans are now being reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will make a recommendation to the Secretary of the Army, a former lobbyist for Raytheon appointed by President Donald Trump. Other projects are also in the works to divert water that Jackalone fears will be paid for with trust dollars.

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Over the years, phosphorus from fertilizer has piled up in Lake Okeechobee. Water leaving the lake in recent years contained about 128 parts per billion and about 119 parts per billion when it reached treatment marshes that filtered the pollution, leaving it dramatically cleaner. Water in the Everglades reservoir would also be polluted and need to be cleaned before it can be pumped south. Source: South Florida Water Management District

“The Everglades reservoir, the [aquifer storage and recovery wells] north of Lake O and these new deepwell injection projects, these are going to cost billions of dollars and this is not Everglades restoration,” Jackalone said. “Everglades restoration is restoring what was once the river of grass.”

The amount of spending has also fueled discontent. In 2016, when lawmakers agreed to set aside $200 million from the fund for Everglades work, they voted to spend just $64 million on springs restoration in Central and North Florida.

“No doubt there are tons of very good environmental programs out there that require funding from the state, but [Amendment 1] was never supposed to be a slush fund for environmental issues for the state,” said Earthjustice attorney Alisa Coe. “There had always been issues that came from other funds other than [the trust fund] and Everglades restoration was one of these.”

That may be, but attorneys for the Everglades Foundation, Audubon Florida and the original authors say restoration work, and not just land purchases, was clearly spelled out in the amendment. In a brief filed in the appeals court, where the case is now being heard, they argue Dodson erred in his interpretation of the trust, rooted in the state’s landmark 1963 “bikini” tax to help preserve and restore beaches and other important lands.

Over the years, that morphed into a preservation fund that, beginning in 1999, spent about $300 million a year to acquire land around sensitive springs, preserve endangered forests like disappearing pine rockland or wetlands in the Everglades. But under Gov. Rick Scott, that stopped.

A manatee swims in the clear waters of Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River. Some environmentalists worry the state spends too little to protect springs. Alan Egan Courtesy photo

One of the bill’s chief authors said the new fund, based on real estate taxes, was expected to generate enough to cover previous spending with plenty left over to also cover Everglades work.

“There are a lot of things, particularly in the central Everglades, that go beyond just acquiring land,” Will Abberger, conservation director at The Trust for Public Land, said at the time. “This is sort of a shift in state politics from a land-banking effort to something that will also provide funding for restoration and management of water and land.”

While Everglades advocates agree sewage work or other projects less directly tied to conservation should be excluded, they say restoration projects that don’t involve buying land were clearly included.

“The Everglades is specifically mentioned in the text of the amendment. It’s the largest ecosystem restoration project in the world and the Everglades, plain and simple, is just different,” said attorney Anna Upton. “So to say building a wastewater treatment plant is the same thing as restoring the Everglades just isn’t true.”

Governor Rick Scott, Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, held a press conference on top of a nearly completed bridge in the Everglades along Tamiami Trail to announce new funding for continued Everglades restoration.

Upton said the ruling also failed to answer the original question posed in the lawsuit that sought to clarify what qualified for trust money.

“We had two sets of environmental groups that go into court with a valid question: Where is the line drawn with a project if it loses its nexus to a constitutionally approved amendment?” she said. “It is a legitimate question that needs to be answered. And not only do we have that question not answered, but we have an overly restrictive definition of what [trust money] can be spent on. ... We don’t have answers yet to the critical question that took everyone to court in the first place.”

An earlier version of this story misstated the title for Everglades Foundation COO Shannon Estenoz.

Jenny Staletovich is a Florida native who covers the environment and hurricanes for the Miami Herald. She previously worked for the Palm Beach Post and graduated from Smith College.