“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.