President Donald Trump’s proposed budget slashes spending by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by 31 percent and fails to include money for an Everglades reservoir aimed at reducing polluted water flushed from Lake Okeechobee to coastal estuaries.
In a Washington press conference on Tuesday, R.D. James, Assistant Secretary of the Army for civil works, and Corps commanders said the proposal includes $63 million to help restore Florida’s wetlands and other ecosystems. That includes completing two small reservoirs east and west of Lake Okeechobee, and restoring winding bends in the Kissimmee River. But that’s well short of the $200 million Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida lawmakers requested for Everglades work.
The budget also omits a vast 17,000-acre reservoir on sugar fields south of the lake to reduce the polluted discharges that last year helped fuel slimy green algae blooms and a red tide that littered the Gulf Coast with dead fish.
The design work was not included because the South Florida Water Management District never made a formal request, Maj. Gen. Scott Spellman said. That could change when a new governing board takes charge Thursday, he said.
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“We’ll know more after that time,” he said.
District spokesman Randy Smith said no formal request was made because the state budgeted $64 million for design efforts.
“The state already appropriated money for the design,” he said. The federal share of the project — the state and federal government will split the cost of what’s now expected to be a $3 billion project — will likely be worked out down the road, he said.
“It’s not for us to tell the [Corps] what to put in their budget,” he said. “The design work was funded by the state and is moving forward.”
Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, who oversees Everglades work for the Corps’ Jacksonville district, said later Tuesday that budget requests are made two years in advance. When the Jacksonville office made its request, Congress had not yet authorized the project as part of a national 2018 waterworks bill, so the office did not ask for money for design work.
The Corps also wants to focus on completing projects already underway, James said.
“This budget represents a program that is dedicated to completing projects rather than recognizing projects in the queue,” he said.
Design work for the reservoir will be critical because the Corps has already raised a number of questions about the 23-foot-deep reservoir and whether filtering marshes can get water clean enough to pump south into Everglades National Park. In May, the Corps released a 147-page critique that also questioned whether proposed estimates were enough to cover what’s expected to be a costly dike large enough to ensure the safety of a reservoir more than twice as deep as Lake Okeechobee. Original reservoir plans called for a 60,000-acre shallow reservoir, but Florida lawmakers shrunk it by a third and ordered the district not to seize more land.
Although the work was not included in the proposed budget, Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite said the Corps has no plans to slow progress. The restoration effort has already been underway for nearly two decades without the completion of a single project.
“We are very, very committed to ecosystem restoration,” he said. “At times requests exceed funding, but in no way does that take our focus off” the restoration.