Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday pledged $90 million for a new bridge along historic Tamiami Trail, a project that promises to restore natural water flow to part of the Everglades and ease — at least eventually — unnatural Lake Okeechobee releases now fouling two coastal rivers.
Scott, who has faced mounting complaints about polluted water flushed from the rain-swollen lake, said the state would commit up to $30 million annually over three years to match federal funding for a 2.6-mile-long bridge that is the next step for fixing a road that has acted as a dam across the Everglades for more than 80 years.
Environmentalists, lawmakers on both coasts and the federal agency that oversees Everglades National Park all praised the move, which they hope will speed up work and bolster uncertain congressional support for completing 6.5 miles of proposed bridging. A one-mile stretch of bridge was opened with much fanfare in March but isn’t nearly wide enough to revive the parched park.
Eric Eikenberg, chief executive office of the Everglades Foundation, called the governor “an environmental leader,’’ crediting Scott for taking a broader look at restoration problems. To solve Lake O’s high-water problems, he said, more water has to move south through the Glades instead of east and west out the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. That can’t happen without more bridges on Tamiami Trail.
“I think there is a complete understanding now about how all these puzzles pieces fit together,” Eikenberg said.
Julie Hill-Gabriel, director of Everglades policy for Florida Audubon, also called Scott’s plan to pay for the work a breakthrough. Scott plans to dip into a rich source of funding that environmentalists had unsuccessfully pushed to tap for years: the road-building coffers of the Florida Department of Transportation.
“This will be the first state money proposed for Tamiami Trail ever. Up until now, it’s been a 100 percent federal project,” said Hill-Gabriel. “That is a huge deal.”
The money, however, isn’t a lock. Scott’s plan would require legislative approval. Environmentalists believe support would be solid. Nine lawmakers from districts bordering the rivers endorsed the proposal in a release issued by the governor’s office
In Washington, the Interior Department has asked for $30 million for the bridge project, but Hill-Gabriel said a U.S. Senate version of the budget includes $15 million and a House version doesn’t fund it at all.
Eikenberg said the Interior Department has a fallback option to tap a national parks road fund if Congress won’t OK the bridge funding.
“If the Obama administration wants to do it, they have the means to do it,’’ he said.
Scott’s announcement marks a continuing shift in tone from Tallahassee in addressing the clamoring from waterfront communities that have endured repeated damaging dumps of dirty lake water.
In South Florida’s antiquated drainage system, the two rivers serve as the lake’s main relief valves. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, concerned about the lake’s aging dike, began dumping nutrient-laden lake water more than a month ago, triggering toxic algae blooms, sea grass die-offs and increasing outrage.
Scott initially pointed fingers, blaming problems on federal “inaction” on dike repairs, but has since focused on fixes, offering to help bankroll stalled federal projects. Last week, he said he would seek $40 million to kick start a Martin County reservoir and storm water treatment area. He announced the Tamiami Trail proposal in Fort Myers, stressing that it would help relieve Lake O high-water problems and restore water quality throughout the region.
“Every drop of water that we can send south and keep out of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Estuaries is a win for Florida families,’’ he said in a release.
In reality, sending more water south remains years and a string of other projects away.
Bridges on the Trail will give water managers options to maintain healthy water levels in much of the Everglades but would offer limited relief to the lake — at least until the state completes an $880 million expansion of a network of pollution-scrubbing marshes. That work, intended to produce water clean enough to meet strict Everglades water quality standards, is expected to take two decades.
Moving more water south also will depend on another $1 billion federal plan to build additional reservoirs and shift a series of canals and levees, which also could take a decade or more.
“The short answer: If the bridges were built tomorrow, they would certainly help provide more water to Everglades National Park but they would not necessarily help Lake Okeechobee,’’ said Lt. Col. Thomas Greco, the Corps’ deputy district commander.
Still, John Adornato, regional director for National Parks Conservation Association, called the bridge a crucial step toward a long-term solution.
“The governor clearly understands that to truly help the lake and the estuaries we’ve got to remove the plug that is the Tamiami Trail,” he said.