For everyone who lives in South Florida and depends on a reliable supply of clean water — nearly 8 million of us, plus visitors — a decision by Congress to move ahead with a major waterworks bill is a bittersweet victory. It authorizes at least $800 million for improvements in the Everglades, but it fails to include the portion that lies at the heart of the restoration plan.
Leaving the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) out of the Water Resources and Development Act moving through Congress is a potentially crippling setback for cleanup efforts of the vast area from the Kissimmee River to the Keys.
The good news is that the long-stalled bipartisan legislation in Congress finally got the green light from Senate and House conferees earlier this month. That clears it for a final vote in both chambers, where passage is expected because of overwhelming support. (The House version won approval by a margin of 417 to 3.)
The legislation covers water projects across the country. It includes about $174.56 million for the C-111 Spreader Canal in Miami-Dade County, which will increase water flow into the ’Glades ecosystem. It also authorizes $627 million to reduce harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee west to the Caloosahatchee River.
These are significant achievements, a tribute to the hard work of Florida’s congressional delegation and countless Everglades advocates and supporters, whose unceasing efforts made it possible.
But the omission of the CEPP is a huge disappointment. While much progress has been made in areas outside of the central Everglades, thanks to state and federal efforts, CEPP is absolutely vital. It provides $1.9 billion to restore, “a more natural quantity, quality, timing and distribution of water” to the central area, according to government plans.
What makes the omission terribly frustrating is that President Obama placed CEPP on the list of urgent public works, which should have sealed the deal. But suddenly last month, the Army Corps of Engineers surprised nearly everyone by delaying its approval.
The Corps, whose support is essential for these huge water projects, had received letters urging endorsement of CEPP from Gov. Rick Scott, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and several members of Congress. The agency seemed to be on board, but at virtually the last moment it found a hitch involving differences in wording about water-quality standards between its own draft of the plan and that of the South Florida Water Management District, which would pay for half the project.
It’s hard to overestimate the damage done by this delay. The last time a national waterworks plan was approved by Congress was seven years ago. The previous one was seven years before that. If CEPP misses its chance now, it may not get the opportunity again for a very long time.
The Corps agreed to meet again at the end of this week to reconsider its decision. At this late date, a green light would not guarantee CEPP’s inclusion in bills quickly nearing votes on the floor of Congress, barring a long-shot chance at a last-minute amendment.
Still, this is the best hope until another water bill comes along, and who knows when that will happen? It should never have come to this, but if the Corps of Engineers gives its approval this week before Congress takes a final vote, there’s still a chance to support a project vital to South Florida’s water supply.
Cleaning up the Everglades can’t wait forever.