A critical vote Thursday moved the restoration plan for the Everglades and Florida Bay forward but major changes lie years away.
"It's like knocking over the first domino in line of dominoes," said Eric Eikenberg, chief executive of the Everglades Foundation. "But it's a very, very long line."
In a unanimous vote, the board of the South Florida Water Management District endorsed a draft report of the Central Everglades Planning Project, which means the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will publish the plan for comment in the Federal Register on Aug. 30.
"When this project is completed, approximately 210,000 acre-feet of water on an average annual basis will be captured and directed south where it can provide ecological benefits," says a project summary.
The South Florida Water Management District is the state's lead agency on Everglades restoration, working with the Corps of Engineers.
"This is one of many steps but it is an important one that comes after extensive public participation and technical work," district Chairman Dan O'Keefe said in a statement.
The plan outlines construction projects that keep water from Lake Okeechobee flowing on a more natural course toward Florida Bay.
After this summer's heavy rains, high levels of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee now are being diverted to coastal estuaries, where the abrupt change in salinity has been blamed for fish kills and other problems. "There is no immediate solution to the problems in the estuaries," Eikenberg said Friday.
There also is the problem of obtaining nearly $2.2 billion in estimated costs for the Central Everglades project, tentatively slated to be shared by the state and federal governments.
"We still have to get Congress to allocate the money," Eikenberg said.
Adding new bridges along the Tamiami Trail, seen as a major effort to get fresh water into Florida Bay, is a separate program.
"We're before Congress right now on trying to get funding for the next 2.6 miles of bridges," Eikenberg said. "It would be a hodgepodge of funding sources, but it is considered one of the most critical projects in the national park system."
A one-mile bridge on Tamiami Trail opened earlier this year in western Miami-Dade County. The next bridges would be installed in Southwest Florida near Naples.