Funding for central Everglades restoration bodes well for Fla. water health

Six years ago, when former Congressman Patrick Murphy led a Florida Waterways Congressional Briefing in Washington, D.C., it was a watershed moment. At the time, very little national attention was paid toward Everglades restoration, and the Central Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a suite of several restoration components which had been enacted by Congress in 2000, was still snailing along.

Much has changed in the last six years. In 2014, the constitutional amendment commonly referred to as “Amendment 1” was ratified by 75 percent of Florida voters. This stipulated that 33 percent of Florida’s revenue from documentary excise taxes would go toward land acquisition. Two years later came the Legacy Florida Act, which locked in an annual minimum of $200 million in state funds for Everglades land acquisition. Florida Senate Bill 10 was also signed into law in 2016, outlining a protocol for movement on CEPP (Central Everglades Planning Project), the main objective of which is to develop stormwater treatment facilities south of Lake Okeechobee and restore the lake’s southward watershed.

Last month, Florida Everglades advocates tallied a new victory, when the House Committee on Appropriations approved a $200 million budget for Everglades Restoration for the 2019-2020 fiscal year – a noticeable increase from this year’s $130 million, and more than three times the allocation that President Trump had originally proposed to Congress in March. U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott were instrumental in the increased appropriations budget.

Mast, who has championed healthy Florida water from the beginning, testified in an April meeting of the Appropriations Committee, emphasizing the need for federal funding. “The only hope for correcting the federal government’s engineering mistakes of the 20th century is to bring [the components of CEPP] to completion,” Mast said at the hearing. In order to do this, Mast continued, the federal government needs to make good on it promise to match state funds for CERP components, outlined in the original legislation. Mast noted that so far, state funding has exceeded federal funding by approximately $1 billion. In February, the Florida legislature approved a budget that among other notable increases has designated about $360 million for Everglades restoration in the next year.

Celeste de Palma, director of Everglades Policy with Audubon Florida, says that next year’s federal allocation is promising. “Progress in Everglades restoration has always been tied to funding,” said de Palma. “Audubon Florida is excited to see the federal government finally step up and match state funding. These $200 million will go a long way in finishing ongoing projects and in getting shovel-ready projects in the ground.” But de Palma warns that one good year of federal funding is not enough if CERP is to continue toward completion. A similar federal funding commitment is needed annually for the indefinite future.

Still, the exponential growth in attention toward CERP does bode well. Army Corps of Engineers Chief Communications Officer John Campbell says he believes the added attention is due to the rapid increase of toxic algal blooms that communities have seen in recent years along the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. Since 2004, the Corps has worked with South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) on a reservoir and stormwater treatment area along the St. Lucie Canal. This project, which will clean nutrient-laden run-off and store about 16 billion gallons, is nearing completion, says Campbell, and is expected to be finished sometime next year.

Other exciting developments are taking place in the Everglades Agricultural Area, just south of Lake Okeechobee. According to de Palma, the SFWMD is already in the final design stages of a stormwater treatment area south of the Lake, on recently repurposed state lands. The U.S. Department of Transportation also recently allocated $60 million to match the state’s $40 million for the Tamiami Trail bridge construction, which will play a crucial role in moving Lake Okeechobee water south through the Everglades. “Moving a much greater amount of water south – mimicking the natural water flow – is critically important for our environment, health, safety and economy. This project will see huge benefits to restore the Everglades and prevent harmful discharges,” said Mast.

Though much more recent attention is being given to CEPP, the projects can often take several years to come to fruition, due to the nature of the collaboration between the state and federal sponsors. Both Campbell and de Palma praised the unified efforts of the Corps and SFWMD in their implementation of CERP; they are currently working together to identify components of Everglades restoration that can be advanced in the near future. “Both agencies are moving simultaneously to put moneys received to good use – figuring out how to best move forward to ensure this critical project gets built sooner rather than later,” said De Palma. “The restoration timeline for this specific project is tough to predict, but being able to advance components of it now will help ensure there are no delays.”

Article by: Adam Laten Willson

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