Congress appears set to OK money for four Everglades projects

kwadlow@keynoter.comMay 21, 2014 

Four major Everglades restoration projects that will help fresh water reach Florida Bay made the cut in a federal bill expected to be approved by Congress.

A joint committee of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate last week published its final version of the Water Resources Development Act that authorizes nearly $1 billion for Florida cleanup projects.

The bill has not passed yet but committee approval indicates passage is "virtually" certain, according to a statement from Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson's office.

"These are major Everglades projects that would be very beneficial to improving the ability to store water and clean water, which are some of the keys for Everglades restoration," said Gabe Margasak of the South Florida Water Management District, the state's lead agency on Everglades restoration.

The closest project to the Florida Keys is a $197 million effort called Biscayne Bay Coast Wetlands Phase I, which will redistribute freshwater runoff away from existing canals and into the coastal wetlands along Biscayne Bay.

A small pilot program at the Deering Estate on Biscayne Bay already has produced significant and positive results for the ecosystem, Margasak said.

The federal bill references a Florida Keys project; however, that basically expands the ability Monroe County to apply for projects in future funding. No additional Keys funding was authorized.

Other projects in the WRDA, like funding for the western C-111 spreader canal and a large water-holding areas covering about 10,000 acres in Broward County, benefit the southern Everglades and Florida Bay by increasing the flow of fresh water through the natural system, said Julie Hill-Gabriel, Everglades policy manager for Florida Audubon.

"Ultimately, it's one of biggest steps forward the Everglades has seen in about seven years," Hill-Gabriel said. "But we're still disappointed the Central Everglades Planning Project is not in the [Water Resources Development Act] bill."

The Central Everglades project covers a number of projects costing an estimated $1.9 billion to improve water flow near Lake Okeechobee, and prevent fresh water from being carried out to sea.

That project hit a snag in late April when a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers review panel said the project's 8,000-page report was not ready for final approval. The Corps committee, the Civil Works Review Board, meets Friday in Washington, D.C., to consider the Central Everglades project again.

Conservationists sorely wanted the Central Everglades project in the current water bill but that appears impossible, Hill-Gabriel said. That could provide incentive for Congress to increase the pace of Water Resource action, she said, possibly fashioning a new bill by 2016.

"A lot of other big-ticket items major did not make it into the bill, either," Hill-Gabriel said. ""We're calling on Congress to come through with that process."

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