Corps of Engineers concerns could delay Everglades cleanup for years

kwadlow@keynoter.comApril 26, 2014 

The Corps has issues with technical aspects of the South Florida Water Management District's plan for the Central Everglades.

KEYSINFONET

An unexpected delay in federal approval of a major piece of Everglades restoration stunned South Florida advocates Tuesday.

A review panel within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to hold off on a decision to move forward with the Central Everglades Planning Project, a series of projects all aimed at improving water flow toward Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.

"We are losing habitat and seeing the ecosystem degrade every day," said Julie Hill-Gabriel, director of Everglades Policy for Florida Audubon.

The Central Everglades project seeks to "rehydrate the system all the way to the southern end of the state and Florida Bay," Hill-Gabriel said. "We have to do these things as quickly as possible."

The $1.9 billion Central Everglades plan would fall under reauthorization of the federal Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which Congress typically takes up once every seven years. The last passage was in 2007 and a new vote is expected this summer.

"This potential delay could push these projects back another seven years," said Caroline McLaughlin, Biscayne Bay restoration analyst for the National Parks Conservation Association. "That kind of delay would mean more suffering in the ecosystem, estuaries and surrounding communities."

Everglades Foundation Chief Executive Eric Eikenberg said, "Once again, the Corps is bogged down in its own bureaucracy, stumbling past important deadlines, showing an unwillingness to be creative, and determined to follow a trail of red tape that leads to public frustration."

The Corps' Civil Works Review Board cited technical differences in plans approved by the South Florida Water Management District, the state's lead agency on Everglades restoration, and federal plans.

"The one thing that cannot be rushed on the final report for this complex project is ensuring that it meets the Corps' required quality standard," Col. Alan Dodd, the Corps' Jacksonville district commander, said in a prepared statement.

The review board has agreed to meet again in Washington, D.C., within a few weeks but no date was available at press time.

"Some of those projects absolutely would have direct effects on Florida Bay and the nearshore waters of the Florida Keys," said Pete Frezza, research manager at Audubon Florida's Tavernier Science Center.

"We've already started to see benefits from things like the first phase of the C-111 project," said Frezza, also a part-time Florida Bay fishing guide. "We've spent a lot of time and effort showing how the lack of freshwater flow affects the bay."

Projects in the Central Everglades system include water storage areas and pumps that would simulate the natural sheet flow of water.

Hill-Gabriel said, "It looks like the Corps is trying to cross its Ts and dot the I's.... The frustration comes from the fact that every single person in the process has worked hard to push things ahead so we can get to this point."

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