Image: Lake Okeechobee
Lake Okeechobee, considered the liquid heart of the Everglades, is seen in a satellite image from 2000. It remains heavily polluted with phosphorous mostly from fertilizer runoff, wildlife habitat is disappearing and at least 67 species face extreme peril, experts found.
updated 9/29/2008 4:21:25 PM ET 2008-09-29T20:21:25

A multibillion-dollar effort to restore Florida's Everglades has made little progress amid funding shortfalls, bureaucratic red tape and disagreements, according to a congressionally mandated report that warns the vast wetland is in peril.

The National Research Council, in findings Monday, warned that degradation of the Everglades could become irreversible if action isn't taken quickly.

"The Everglades ecosystem is continuing to decline. It's our estimate that we're losing the battle to save this thing," said William Graf, the report's committee chairman and head of the department of geography at the University of South Carolina at Columbia.

The South Florida Water Management District, which oversees restoration for the state, said in a statement that it agrees with the report's findings "that restoration progress is hampered by limited federal funding and a complex and lengthy federal planning process."

Approved by Congress in 2000, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was originally estimated to cost about $7.8 billion and expected to take 30 years to complete — a price tag that has since ballooned due to construction costs and other inflation.

The intent is to help restore some natural water flow after decades of dikes and diversions for development and agriculture, which have shrunk the Everglades to half its historical 4 million acres.

Funding shortfall from Congress
The 2000 plan made the federal government and Florida 50-50 partners. To date, the state has committed more than $2 billion and pushed ahead alone with a few projects. Congress has only appropriated several hundred million dollars.

Lake Okeechobee, the liquid heart of the Everglades, remains heavily polluted with phosphorous mostly from fertilizer runoff, wildlife habitat is disappearing and at least 67 threatened or endangered species face extreme peril.

About a million acres are contaminated with mercury, the report noted.

"Unless near-term progress is achieved on major restoration initiatives, the Everglades will likely face further loss of species and habitat deterioration, which could be difficult or impossible to reverse," the report said.

Meanwhile, the NRC committee commended Florida for its ambitious land acquisition, including a $1.75 billion proposal to buy some 300 square miles of farmland from U.S. Sugar Corp. that has long been a hindrance to water flow. However, much of that land may remain in agriculture, and the committee noted effects of such a deal may be more than a decade away.

Dexter Lehtinen, a Miami attorney who represents the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians living in the Everglades, has consistently fought for restoration. He said the entire effort has been mired in plan changes, talk and not enough action.

Sugar deal not what it seemed
Many environmentalists lauded a potential buyout of U.S. Sugar as a boon for Everglades restoration when Gov. Charlie Crist announced that in June. At the time, Crist proclaimed the planned buyout as the savior of the wetlands — "as monumental as the creation of our nation's first national park."

But as details of the plan emerge, officials now say only about half the 300 square miles the state would acquire from the company would actually go toward environmental restoration. The rest likely will remain in agriculture.

Lehtinen said that deal just brings another delay to the monumental, undone task of rescuing the Everglades while officials negotiate the sale with U.S. Sugar and rework restoration plans.

"We're biting off more than we can chew rather than chewing what we've got," Lehtinen said. "And that's going to kill the Everglades."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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