The last few years have been good for Everglades restoration.
After a decade of delay, there have been a string of ground-breakings and dedications, most recently Friday for a pump station in deep South Miami-Dade that will send more freshwater to both parched Everglades National Park and a too-salty swath of Florida Bay. Next month, a ribbon-cutting is scheduled for a new one-mile bridge along Tamiami Trail, which has blocked the flow of the River of Grass for a century.
Florida, which fought a federal lawsuit for years, also finally agreed in June to an $880 million expansion of vast artificial marshes intended to clean up damaging farm pollution.
The challenge now: Maintain progress and, most important, the flow of money for complex and expensive projects. That was the message Friday at the annual meeting of the Everglades Coalition at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, a three-day gathering that brought together some 300 activists, state and federal agency managers and political leaders.
The tone was generally optimistic from activists and the Obama administration, which has kick-started stalled efforts with some $1.5 billion in the last four years.
“The momentum of Everglades restoration continues, even during tough times,” said Terrence “Rock” Salt, a longtime restoration manager and assistant secretary of the Army who oversees the Corps of Engineers.
But political and economic reality suggests tough slogging ahead. Deep federal budget cuts loom unless a divided Congress can cut a deal. With Florida still crawling out of an economic slump, state lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott also have been loathe to boost the depleted budget of the South Florida Water Management District, which directs restoration for the state.
Scott, who was in Miami Thursday night, made an unscheduled stop at the coalition’s opening reception. Activists said he committed to continued funding for the historic $880 million cleanup settlement.
But environmentalists are worried that district plans to pay for the clean-up will siphon money from a host of other pending restoration projects. The district’s current $50 million Everglades budget, which the coalition wants to see doubled, calls for devoting $32 million to pollution clean-up alone.
Erik Eikenberg, chief executive office of The Everglades Foundation, said activists support the clean-up plan but remain concerned the state is putting too much of the bill on South Florida taxpayers and not enough on sugar growers and other farmers responsible for most of the pollution.
“We all have to come together and figure out how we are going to fund this in the long run,” he said.
Federal funding, and construction work, also could begin to dry up unless Congress formally authorizes a string of restoration projects lined up and ready to go — including projects that would begin to restore freshwater flows to Biscayne Bay, construct storage reservoirs in Broward County, increase water flows through the central Everglades and add another 2.5 miles of bridges on the Tamiami Trail.
Approval for such large-scale projects typically come in massive spending bills called Water Resources Development Acts. Congress hasn’t agreed to one of those since 2007.
Coalition co-chair Dawn Shirreffs was hopeful that political bickering wouldn’t undermine restoration, which has historically won bipartisan support, in part because it produces positive ripple effects, from protecting the water supply to producing thousands of jobs.
“This is not only just a feel-good legacy issue, this is a very pragmatic, human health and economic issue,’’ she said.