Florida lawmakers approved a bill that relaxes a measure to clean up the Everglades and sent it to Gov. Jeb Bush over the objections of environmentalists.
By a 96-18 vote, the Florida House passed a measure that scraps a 2006 deadline that was set in 1994.
The 1994 bill required farmers to use filtering ponds or other methods to ensure that less phosphorus and other pollutants entered the fragile Everglades. While the original set explicit limits and deadlines, the 2003 revision requires the runoff to be cleaned up only "to the maximum extent practicable."
The Florida Senate voted 38-0 to approve the measure.
Backed by the sugar industry and supported by the governor, the bill has come under fire from those who say the delay could jeopardize federal funds critical to the $8 billion federal and state effort to restore water flow the Everglades during the next several years.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, added his name to the list of federal lawmakers urging Florida legislators to defeat the measure.
On Tuesday, U.S. House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young, a Florida Republican, called on the governor to veto it.
A federal judge has ordered state officials to a hearing in Miami to discuss the impact of the legislation and whether it conflicts with current requirements. U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler has overseen the Everglades restoration effort for more than a decade.
A sugar industry spokesman hailed the legislation as a practical modification to a 10-year-old program. Robert Coker, vice president for U.S. Sugar Corp., also accused critics of conducting a scare campaign to thwart passage of the measure.
"I'm tired of the extreme environmentalists hiding behind Everglades restoration because they don't like the sugar industry," said Coker.
Opponents of the plan said slowing implementation of higher water quality standards could erode congressional support for what will be one of the most expensive public works projects in U.S. history.
"What I do know is that if we lose federal funding for this important restoration, it could be many more decades before we can fully restore the Everglades," said House Democratic Leader Doug Wiles. "And members, that is not a risk I am prepared to take."