The Senate is tantalizingly close to approving legislation that energizes the decades-long effort to restore the well-being of the Florida Everglades. This is an opportunity that must not be missed, as it was two years ago when the region’s ecosystem failed to win inclusion in a similar bill to approve water resources development programs around the country.
At that time, a last-minute snafu led the Corps of Engineers to withhold approval for the Central Everglades Project, prompting a circular firing squad by all the parties involved to point blame at everyone else for the inexcusable failure. This time, everyone seems to be on board. As this is written, the Senate has started debate on the issue and may vote on the package this week.
It’s no secret that despite all the lip service that virtually every important institution in South Florida pays to keeping the Everglades healthy, the sprawling ecosystem is riddled with chronic problems. They are largely — but not entirely — confined to the question of how to clear a path for the river of grass to flow naturally through the broad flatlands and marshes that extend virtually from coast to coast, between the narrow ribbon of urban development on the east and west.
What this legislation (the Water Resources Development Act of 2016, or WRDA) does, essentially, is to clear that path. According to the Everglades Foundation, the plan green lights an engineering blueprint designed to convey water from the lake southward, clean water from Lake Okeechobee before it reaches the Everglades, and remove obstacles in the way.
The bill does establishes the essential prerequisite for federal funding by authorizing $10.6 billion in water resources improvements around the country. It covers navigation, flood control and environmental restoration projects from Alaska to Florida. It includes a plan to address the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and restore the water quality of the Great Lakes.
And, importantly, a harbor deepening project in Port Everglades, as well as another in Jacksonville.
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla, who chairs the relevant committee in the Senate, is a late, albeit heartily welcome convert to the issue of restoring the Everglades. “I generally don’t like Everglades projects,” he said in a recent floor speech. “In fact, I can remember — it wasn’t that many years ago — when I was the only one voting against the Everglades Restoration Act.”
But as he explained in an Other Views article last week, persistent lobbying by Sen. Marco Rubio helped him to change his mind. In his Senate speech, he cited the recent algae blooms in Port St. Lucie as symptoms of Everglades degradation that the legislation before the Senate is designed to address. Welcome to the cause, Sen. Inhofe.
This measure is not the final salvation for the Everglades, the cure-all that overcomes all the obstacles. It does not specifically address the aging dike around Lake Okeechobee, for example.
But it represents a good start in efforts to restore one of the country’s greatest life-supporting ecosystems. It goes a long way toward ensuring that South Florida will have a healthy, dependable and safe source of fresh water for the foreseeable future.
It should win approval by the Senate without reservations or disabling amendments and be sent to the House for speedy action in the relatively few days remaining before the 114th Congress adjourns for good.