Glad for the Glades

IN THE EVERGLADES: Ibises in flight along the C-111 Spreader Canal Western Project, which will restore freshwater wetlands, tidal wetlands and near-shore habitat.
IN THE EVERGLADES: Ibises in flight along the C-111 Spreader Canal Western Project, which will restore freshwater wetlands, tidal wetlands and near-shore habitat. Miami Herald Staff

Suddenly, saving the Everglades is a hot issue again. Real money, millions in state and federal funding, is being proposed in this year’s budgets. The combined amount, $390 million, would improve the health of the Everglades — and therefore the viability of South Florida’s drinking water, wildlife habitat and tourist magnet.

President Obama’s budget earmarks $240 million for Everglades restoration as outlined by the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, CERP.

This comes on the heels of Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed $150 million for restoration and habitat preservation. And Scott wants Everglades restoration to get funds from Amendment 1, the constitutional measure overwhelmingly approved by voters for land and water conservation. That would add another $5 billion for Everglades projects over the life of the 20-year amendment, which could cover the state’s projected costs.

We commend Mr. Scott’s turnaround here. During his tenure, spending on the state’s environmental protection agency steadily declined, along with money for restoration and habitat preservation. Plus, an improving economy should always give conservation funding a boost.

But is it enough money? When authorized in 2000, the tab for Everglades restoration was estimated at $7.8 billion; it is now $13.5 billion. Everglades restoration is expensive and moves at a snail’s pace. There have been some successes. The latest CERP report highlights the raising of a mile of the Tamiami Trail to unblock the water flow into the Glades; the near-completion of the Picayune Strand restoration; ecosystem responses to phased implementation of several projects that restored “sheet flow” into Florida and Biscayne bays; and near completion of the Kissimmee River restoration to undo a disastrous channelization in the 1960s.

The work being done is divided into four geographical regions: Greater Everglades, Northern Estuaries, the Southern Coastal Systems and Lake Okeechobee. This last is deemed of critical concern.

According to the Everglades Foundation, an advocacy group that seeks to build consensus around restoring the River of Grass, when Lake Okeechobee’s water level is high, especially during the rainy season, its water is released to the east and the west. But, CEO Eric Eikenberg told the Editorial Board, that water really needs to flow south to replenish the still-parched Tamiami Trail area of the Everglades. What’s missing are deep-water reservoirs to store and filter pollutants from the lake waters that are now going elsewhere. With a reservoir in place, a series of dams could then be dismantled to restore the flow south.

Not only is the land available on which to locate a reservoir, there is a contract between the state and U.S. Sugar, which owns that land, to allow the plan to forge ahead. The deal was sealed in 2010, during the Charlie Crist administration. That year, the state purchased 26,000 acres for $190 million, Mr. Eikenberg said. A second option makes 46,000 acres available for purchase. This would be a boon to propel restoration forward.

However, Mr. Eikenberg says that, despite signing on the dotted line, U.S. Sugar wants to renege on this option, which, by the way, expires on Oct. 12. U.S. Sugar representatives did not return a call from the Editorial Board on Thursday.

Gov. Scott should use his new commitment to the Everglades to unclog this holdup before the opportunity to renourish a precious resource is lost.