Deadline on key Everglades project looms



With a deadline to secure congressional authorization fast running out, environmentalists on Thursday pressed water managers to endorse a $2.2 billion suite of projects that is a key to finally restoring natural water flow through the heart of the River of Grass.

“We can’t miss this opportunity,” said Eric Eikenberg, chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation. He was among some two dozen activists as well as state and federal lawmakers who urged the South Florida Water Management District to support the proposed Central Everglades Planning Project, which is designed to send more water south to long-parched Everglades National Park.

The district’s governing board and top managers, holding a meeting on Key Biscayne, insisted they were optimistic they could meet a July deadline to endorse the proposal. But they also cautioned there were difficult, still unresolved issues — particularly whether an agency that has slashed its budget over the last few years and is pondering selling off thousands of acres of land can afford to take on another big-ticket project.

James Moran, a district governing board member, said the plan raised “monumental issues.’’

Beyond initial construction costs, which had only been estimated, water managers want the federal government to split yet-to-be calculated operating and maintenance costs for pumps and levees. More important and potentially more expensive, water managers also are concerned that delivering more water to the park also could expose the state to more pollution lawsuits and costly cleanup projects. The state, under federal court pressure, has already poured more than $1 billion into building massive artificial marshes to scrub the farm pollutant phosphorus from water flowing into the Glades and Gov. Rick Scott signed off on another $880 million expansion earlier this year.

“We haven’t seen, dollarwise, any estimates as to how much it will cost and how we’re going to pay the bill,’’ said Moran.

The district and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been working on blueprints for the Central Everglades for 1 1/2 years, fast-tracking a planning process that in the past has taken four to six years. Their proposal would reroute some canals, remove some levees and add pumps to help move more fresh water now held in Lake Okeechobee into the southern Everglades instead of dumping it into rivers, damaging sensitive estuaries. The Central Everglades project is considered a critical next phase of the $10.5 billion Everglades restoration project, promising to at least partially revive flows to Everglades National park through a new Tamiami Trail bridge, the first of several bridges Congress has approved.

But unless the district formally agrees to co-sponsor the plan by next month, the Corps would likely not have time to complete it and include the project in a big public works bill the Congress is expected to approve this year. Congress only sporadically passes such bills, called a water resources development act, or WRDA, with the last coming seven years ago.

The Corps has until December to produce a final report that would be among at least two dozen already under consideration. But because a 45-day public comment period and a 30-day agency review are both required, the district would have to sign off on a draft plan by July or early August, said Lt. Col. Thomas Greco, commander of the Corps’ Jacksonville district, which oversees Everglades restoration projects.

“Time is of the essence,’’ Greco told water managers.

Ernie Barnett, a top district aide who was named interim manager on Thursday, and Greg Munson, a deputy secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection who is negotiating water quality issues with the Corps, both said they were hopeful they’ll iron out details and refine cost estimates in time for the district’s next meeting in July. If not, a special meeting could be called. The governing board would then have a second chance to approve a final draft in October.

Munson did not say whether Gov. Scott backed the new project but said it “has a lot of potential. It promises to be sort of the light at the end of the tunnel.’’

Staffers from the office of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, presented letters asking the district to support the project. State Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat whose district includes Coral Gables and Key Biscayne, also showed up to back the plan, saying he believed state lawmakers would help work out a payment plan.

Dawn Shirreffs, Everglades restoration program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, said that agreeing to co-sponsor the plan wouldn’t immediately put the agency on the hook for the entire bill. A WRDA bill simply green-lights a project, she said. It could take years to secure federal funding and build the string of projects envisioned in the plan, she said.

Eikenberg of the Everglades Foundation said the project would also help water management problems across the region. When water in Lake Okeechobee gets too high, like it is now after heavy spring rains, the Corps is often forced to dump water down the Caloosahatchee River to the west and the St. Lucie to the east, where the polluted flow can trigger fishing-killing algae blooms.

“The lake is approximately 14 feet now and they’re dumping billions of gallons of water,’’ he said. “This is the southern relief valve.”

Unless the district signs off, environmental groups say restoration could grind to a halt. It could be five to seven years before another WRDA.

“We’d be screwed,’’ said Eikenberg.

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