It’s now or, possibly, never.
The federal Office of Management and Budget is all that stands between a revitalized Everglades and the annual creep of toxic algae blooms that, at this very moment, are fouling coastal waters.
A critical element of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan — a water-storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee — is on track to get federal funding. But OMB must send the report approving the project to Congress. It hasn’t moved, but it must — now. The reservoir is slated to be included in the Water Resources Development Act. The House has passed its version. The Senate could take it up this this week.
The OMB, overseen by the president, ensures that rules, reports and legislation comport with his budget and administration’s vision.
President Trump’s policies have not been environmentally friendly, to say the least. But he should take note: In one of the few displays of bipartisan cooperation last year, Florida lawmakers, with Republican Sen. Joe Negron in the lead, approved a bill of vital importance to Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie Estuary, the Caloosahatchee River and, of course, the Everglades. SB 10 provides funding for the desperately needed reservoir.
Lake O takes in water from the Kissimmee River to the north. Because a low dike encircles it, the only way to keep the lake at safe levels is to release water east to the St. Lucie Estuary and west to the Caloosahatchee River Estuary. The water is nutrient-rich and untreated, hence the toxic algae blooms that ruin business, fishing and recreation opportunities. Last week, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that $514 million have been allocated for dike repairs — vital, but not an overflow solution. As bad as the algae is, it is merely a symptom of a sick system, which a reservoir to the south will go a long way to heal.
The reservoir will provide an outlet into which lake water can be released, treated and, ultimately, moved south to replenish the Everglades.
The estimated cost of the reservoir is $1.4 billion. If federally authorized, that cost will be split 50/50 by the state and federal governments. Florida already has dedicated $64 million a year for the project. Better still, the funds are bondable — the state can generate funds to speed up construction.
After years of delays, the reservoir project has been a miracle of fast-tracking, rarely seen. The South Florida Water Management District planned it in seven months — an incredible feat. The District used a little-known congressional authorization giving the Army Corps the ability to move projects forward without becoming mired in the federal planning process.
In March, the District handed the plan to the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works who, under the speeded-up process, could recommend directly to Congress that the project move forward, with a first stop at the OMB. The army moved moved mountains to review the project in record time, determining that it was feasible. In June, it sent its recommendation to the OMB, where it remains.
It’s worth remembering that in the early days of the restoration plan, established in 2000, it took six to seven years to reach this point.
Advocates, including the governor and Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, have pushed to get this done.
And there is bipartisan support in Congress to include the reservoir in the larger legislation.
If the report is not forwarded to Congress, the reservoir will be kicked back into the clogged federal planning process. Congress won’t address the water-projects act again until 2020.
Florida does not have two years to lose. It’s now or never, OMB. Make it now.