The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to take a crucial step in the $1.9 billion plan to restore the central Everglades, a decision environmentalists say all but kills the project for years.
“This delay means Congress will be unable to act on [the plan] for years,” Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said in a statement. “Once again, the Corps is bogged down in its own bureaucracy, stumbling past important deadlines, showing an unwillingness to be creative, and determined to follow a trail of red tape that leads to public frustration.”
An internal review board had needed to approve the Central Everglades Planning Project, known as CEPP, in time to get it into a federal appropriations bill this year.
The plan is an attempt to bundle connected projects in the massive Everglades restoration effort, which has been mired in delays and reviews since President Bill Clinton approved an initial $1.4 billion for restoration in 2000. Supporters hoped that CEPP, with its focus on the critical core of the 18,000-square-mile ecosystem that spans 16 counties from Orlando to Florida Bay, could clean polluted water and then move it south to the parched southern Everglades. Much of that water is now flushed east and west, fouling rivers and estuaries.
But instead — and to the surprise of environmentalists who helped win support for the plan from the South Florida Water Management District earlier this month — the Corps’ internal review board balked. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Gov. Rick Scott and eight members of Congress also wrote letters to the Corps in the past week urging it to approve the plan before the end of April.
“Time is of the essence,” an April 22 letter from congressional members insisted.
The Corps, however, refused to be rushed.
“This challenging feat has required us all to step outside of our comfort zones,” Col. Alan Dodd, the Corps’ Jacksonville district commander, said in a statement. “The one thing that cannot be rushed on the final report for this complex project is ensuring that it meets the Corps’ required quality standard.”
The Corps, which fast-tracked the plan as part of an experiment to see whether it could speed up its chronically slow pace, completed a draft in August and began holding public hearings across South Florida. But a South Florida Water Management District resolution April 10 committing the district to paying its half of the bill included language that differed from the Corps’ draft, said Eric Bush, a planning and policy division chief.
Wednesday, he declined to explain the difference, instead pointing out that the 8,000-page report had moved at a faster pace than the six years previously required.
“It’s not a stalling tactic,” Bush said of Tuesday’s decision.
The language in dispute, he said, deals with water quality, a critical issue in the restoration project intended to send water from Lake Okeechobee south. In the past, water has been so polluted with phosphorous from fertilizers that it killed oysters and seagrass.
In a statement Wednesday, the district urged the Corps to “immediately reconvene to discuss and approve CEPP.”
Bush said the Corps hopes to complete its review by June, followed by another 30-day public comment period before its chief of engineers gives a final approval and sends it to Congress.
Federal projects in the Everglades are paid for through the 1974 Water Resources and Development Act (WRDA), which was intended to funnel money every two years into efforts around the country.
But in recent years, the two-year cycle has broken down, and appropriations can now drag on for years. The last time Congress approved any money under WRDA was in 2007, prompting environmentalists to demand the Corps sign off on the plan in time for an appropriations bill now being considered.
“The window for authorization of CEPP is closing,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida.
Dawn Sherriffs, a senior policy adviser for the Everglades Foundation who attended the Corps’ review session Tuesday, said the board should have considered passing the plan contingent on the language being resolved.
“It is inconceivable that they felt no sense of urgency,” she said.