Water managers took a crucial step Thursday in redefining the methods and mechanics of Everglades restoration by committing financial support to a suite of projects that target the massive ecosystem’s ailing core.
The $1.9 million Central Everglades Planning Project, known as CEPP, is far smaller than the grand vision Congress adopted 14 years ago at five times the cost. Instead, it bundles connected projects capable of restoring as much as two-thirds of the water needed to flow south from Lake Okeechobee and allows more flexibility to recalibrate work as it progresses.
The new strategy, supporters say, is the only way to move forward on restoration efforts that have been mired in bureaucracy, politics and changing science.
“Doing this project is so different. You turn it on and see the results,” said Dawn Sherriff, a policy advisor for the Everglades Foundation.
Thursday’s decision by the South Florida Water Management District was crucial to keeping the project on track or risk missing deadlines for federal lawmakers to commit to their half of the cost.
But while Thursday’s vote mattered, it in no way guarantees restoration, said governing board member James Moran, who said unanswered questions about water quality and financing could endanger it.
“I’m going to vote yes on CEPP today, but I have serious concerns that if anyone in this room is counting on CEPP to save the Everglades, it may never happen,” he said. “Congress has to appropriate their share of the money [and] . . . as of last year, the [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] had $60 billion in backlogged projects.”
The new strategy was introduced more than two years ago, and has been winding its way through a maze of regulatory and environmental groups that include multiple regional, state and federal agencies as well as environmentalists advocating for many issues, from imperiled wildlife to fishing rights.
Last week, when a final draft reached a critical advisory committee for the district, worry surfaced that it failed to adequately address the question of water pollution. If the water is too polluted, the water management district risks violating a settlement it struck after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several environmental groups sued over the release of dirty water from Lake Okeechobee. So district staff members reworded parts of the plan to ensure that $880 million in clean-up work approved by Gov. Rick Scott last year must be completed before any CEPP projects.
Then on Wednesday, just one day before the vote, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also released an opinion saying it would be unable to say whether construction of the projects would affect three endangered bird species. Larry Williams, a field supervisor for the agency’s South Florida Ecological Services, assured the board Thursday that the issue could be addressed as the projects progress.
But with concern growing that the plan might again stall, supporters rallied. More than 200 emails were sent to the water management district and 30 speakers, including 10-year-old Aidan Lewey of St. Lucie County, told board members Thursday that waiting any longer would spell doom for the vast River of Grass.
“This plan reconnects wetlands that have been divided since 1912. Since 1912 they have been cut off. And now they have a chance to be reconnected,” said Jon Ullman, the South Florida field representative for the Sierra Club. “Postponement of this vote would be a failure.”
U.S. Sugar, which has often been in opposition to environmentalists who blame the industry for polluting the Everglades, applauded the decision and urged the federal government and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “to move forward quickly to authorize and fund these restoration projects.”
But even with wide support, the issue of water pollution remains tricky.
“We need a holistic view on Everglades restoration, and I’m here to critique the inadequacies of CEPP,” said Miccosukee tribe member Houston Cypress, who created the Love the Everglades Movement. “While I support CEPP, it doesn’t do enough.”
With the water district’s endorsement Thursday, the plan will undergo a critical review by the Army Corps, scheduled to meet April 24. That decision could allow the plan to be inserted into a major public works bill that Congress is considering. The bill was supposed to be considered every two years, but was stalled for seven, leading environmentalists to worry that if CEPP is not included this year, it might never get done.
“We don’t have time to wait for another round,” said Drew Martin, conservation chair of the Sierra Club’s Loxahatchee Group. “We need to move forward.”