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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the 2012 Everglades Coalition Annual Conference, As Prepared

01/06/2012
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As prepared for delivery.

For decades, the people of Florida have called for the restoration, protection and preservation of the Everglades. These natural resources are valuable to the state and the nation for their biodiversity, for their beauty, and for their support of Florida’s number one industry, tourism. And for almost three decades, this coalition has been bringing together dedicated advocates and experts to help answer that call. So first, let me say thank you for all that you do.

Let me also say how glad I am to be part of a strong federal presence at this conference – and to be working so closely with so many of you on the path forward for the Everglades ecosystem. It is wonderful to be back in Florida – into some warmer weather than Washington this time of year. And it is great to be here to focus on the Everglades.

I had a chance this morning to take a helicopter tour and see first-hand this incredible ecosystem. I saw the Tamiami Trail Bridging project that will allow water to sheet flow into the Everglades National Park. There is one mile currently under construction and there is a study being conducted for an additional 5 miles. This will open the Everglades up to more natural sheet flow. It was amazing to see the Everglades mosaic of tree islands and open water sloughs – the tree islands that are such important habitat for wildlife as well as important to the Native Americans who call the Everglades their home. As we moved further north I saw the Stormwater Treatment Areas, and the Everglades Agricultural Area – the massive marsh treatment systems are the cornerstone to restoring the Everglades. We then headed east and it is amazing to see the proximity of the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge to both the agricultural and the urban areas. Seeing this first hand you can understand the pressures that have been put on the historic Everglades, and the importance of restoring and maintaining it.

I can see clearly why this is such a unique and important ecosystem, and why it is that all of you are so dedicated to its restoration and protection.

That dedication is something I’ve seen reflected in my own experience. As the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, I have not only a professional responsibility, but also a personal connection to the issues and challenges we are facing in the Everglades. As many of you know, I grew up in New Orleans, along the shores of the Gulf Coast. You can’t grow up in a place like New Orleans without learning the importance of the local wetlands and waters, and the deep need to preserve and protect such an important ecosystem.

I know what it is like when the culture, the history and the economy are tied to the health of the local environment. I grew up in a place where clean water is essential to the way of life. It’s exactly what I see and what I hear about the Everglades. The passion here is the passion I grew up with. Some of the issues here are the same issues I learned about as a student at Tulane, studying the local ecosystem. And the concern for your future is similar to what I saw two years ago, when the Gulf Coast ecosystem was threatened by the largest oil spill in our nation’s history.

Many of the organizations represented here were part of the response effort in the Gulf – as was the state government in Florida and so many of its dedicated citizens. In fact, our first listening session of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force took place in this state. The work we did, and the broad coalition we forged to come up with a clear action plan are also similar to our efforts in the Everglades. The spirit of collaboration, the use of cutting edge science, and the strong sense of urgency are all things that are present in the work being done here.

We have important work to do – and plenty of it. Over the years, the people of Florida have heard many pledges and commitments. There has been significant progress made but much more remains to be done.

Fundamentally, restoring the Everglades is about improving water quality and increasing water flows to the ecosystem. Without greater amounts of water reaching the right places at the right times – coupled with reductions in pollutants and the achievement of water quality standards – we won’t be able to restore the diversity that is essential to the Everglades ecosystem. The longstanding approach has been to focus both on water quality and water quantity as the twin pillars of Everglades restoration. The Obama administration, working with the State, has made strides in both areas and we’re now redoubling our efforts.

EPA’s primary responsibility for Everglades restoration is to protect water quality under the Clean Water Act. And we know that there is much to be accomplished on that front. I don’t think I will shock anyone by saying that the U.S. courts and the EPA – and I’m sure many of you – are dissatisfied that it has taken so long to see the water quality improvements that are so important to Everglades restoration. Phosphorus pollution continues to degrade water quality in the Everglades and adverse impacts to vital habitats remain a threat to this irreplaceable natural treasure. All the while, data has been gathered and studied, and plans have been made. But too many deadlines have been postponed.

Continued delay is not acceptable.

In 2010, when U.S. District Court Judge Alan Gold issued an order requiring EPA to submit a detailed plan for meeting water quality standards in the Everglades, I personally instructed my staff to comply with the order. We promptly submitted our Amended Determination – a strong blueprint for action – to the court. That blueprint was based on a thorough analysis and modeling by experts in our regional office in Atlanta and outlined specific steps and timelines to clean up the waters that protect and sustain the Everglades.

It focused on reducing the levels of phosphorus pollution that have allowed dense cattail stands to replace the native vegetation. Those steps include a Water Quality based Effluent Limit that we calculated would meet water quality standards for phosphorus, along with a set of remedies that would achieve that limit by expanding the STAs by 42,000 acres. That step would reduce phosphorous levels that discharge into the Everglades from runoff water coming primarily from farms and other sources to the north. The expanded treatment areas would need to be reflected in NDPES permits issued by the State to the South Florida Water Management District.

It is also of paramount importance to note that this is a collaborative effort with our partners in Florida. While EPA has outlined actions the state could take to meet the standards of the Clean Water Act, we have also encouraged the State to propose alternative approaches that achieve equivalent water quality improvement on a comparable schedule. We have been glad to see the Governor and other state officials taking a proactive role in this effort. I was grateful to see the increased resources being dedicated to this effort. And not long ago, my federal partners and I had a chance to meet with Governor Scott, who offered a proposal for meeting water quality standards in the Everglades. We are reviewing that plan on a fast track. It contains critical differences from the AD and we do have concerns that it may not be as effective in facilitating the water quality improvements this ecosystem needs.

We want to agree on a set of remedies and an enforceable framework with time frames that all parties can support as soon as possible, and the EPA will provide the State with our best technical feedback and our best recommendations for enhancing its plan. Any plan forward must also reflect the urgency all of you have put into restoring the Everglades ecosystem.

I can also assure you that we will follow the science in any decisions we make. Science is the backbone of everything we do at EPA, and to initiate an effective, long-term restoration we must be guided by the best possible data and research. We must be committed to science. And we must also be committed to transparency and the accountability that comes with it.

The EPA, our federal partners and the state are engaged in work that is vital to the future of this ecosystem and to the people of Florida. It is essential that we provide transparent access to what we are doing. Much of what we hope to accomplish in the Everglades is built on the advocacy and energy you have put into this issue. You have helped bring us to this point, and you deserve to know about and be part of the steps to come.

We have a comprehensive, cost-effective plan that uses science and broad partnerships with the state to ensure a better future for these vital natural resources. The bottom line is that it’s time to move beyond the talk and take action. We can’t wait. And the EPA is committed to doing its part.
Let me close on another issue where we can’t wait – and that is in our work, here in Florida and across the nation, to strengthen our economy. President Obama has said many times that his top priority is to create good, middle-class jobs for American workers. And we are taking every step we can to ensure that happens.

That includes these restoration efforts. We know that the Everglades is not just a valuable ecosystem, it is also an economic cornerstone for this region. Its health is vital to property values of thousands of homes. Every year the area generates billions of dollars in tourism, recreational and commercial fishing, hunting and more. As a recent economic report noted, every dollar invested in Everglades restoration has the potential to yield four dollars of economic benefits for the South Florida economy. There is even the potential for restoration projects, once they get underway, to create new jobs – around 22,000 new jobs according to estimates from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Finally, there is an unacceptable cost to inaction. As Marjory Stoneman Douglas – the woman who first named this “The River of Grass” – said almost 65 years ago, “There are no other Everglades in the world. They are, they have always been, one of the unique regions of the earth …Nothing anywhere else is like them.”

The people of this state, and of this country, are counting on the EPA, our federal colleagues, and our state partners to act quickly to protect and restore this one-of-a-kind natural treasure. With the support of this coalition, that is exactly what we are committed to doing. I look forward to working with all of you.

Thank you very much.