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Everglades restoration bogs down
Costs are up and work is delayed, except for water supply projects, a federal report says.
By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published July 3, 2007
Gov. Jeb Bush announced his plan to restore the Florida Everglades in 2004, Congress itself has not provided any new funding for the Everglades in seven years.
[AP photo (2004)]
[AP photo (2004)]
A black neck stilt walks on the shore of the Kissimmee River near Okeechobee.
Seven years after the giant Everglades restoration project began, some of its crucial elements are already six years behind schedule and the cost has ballooned to nearly $20-billion, according to the Government Accountability Office.
A GAO report released Monday fueled renewed criticism that the taxpayer-funded project will do more to supply water for South Florida's booming population than to revive the River of Grass.
"Concerns remain about how the water will be allocated between the natural, urban and agricultural areas for many of these projects, and who will ultimately benefit from these water allocation decisions, " the GAO report stated.
The lawmaker who requested the report, Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., noted that the segments of the Everglades project delayed the longest are considered most crucial to the success of natural restoration.
"The GAO report suggests we are doing far more for water infrastructure and far less for the protection of the Everglades, " said Oberstar, who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The Everglades restoration project "is all about balance, and this report suggests that the implementation may be off balance, " he said.
Spokesmen for both the Sierra Club and Friends of the Everglades agreed.
"Every year they're falling farther and farther behind, and the only projects being funded are water supply projects, " said David Reiner, president of Friends of the Everglades, the organization founded by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the environmentalist who wrote the 1947 book The Everglades: River of Grass.
A major reason for the delays and rising costs, according to the report: Congress itself has not provided any new funding for the Everglades in seven years. The House and Senate have both passed their own versions of a bill this year, but so far they have not been able to reconcile the differences.
Federal officials can do all the planning in the world, said April Gromnicki of the Audubon Society, "and none of it matters if they don't have the funding."
Originally, Congress and the Legislature approved the Everglades restoration project as an unprecedented 50-50 split between federal and state responsibility. But from 1999 to 2006, the federal government spent $2.3-billion on Everglades restoration, while Florida, trying to pick up the slack, has spent $4.8-billion.
Yet that combined $7.1-billion was still $1.2-billion less than what state and federal agencies estimated they would need to spend on Everglades projects during that period, the GAO reported.
The Everglades restoration plan is supposed to repair the damage done by the complex system of canals, levees and pumps built to drain South Florida for settlement - a system that currently flushes away an estimated 1-billion gallons of water a day.
The plan calls for holding that water in reservoirs and deep wells, then releasing it more gradually and redirecting it to mimic what was once the natural flow of the River of Grass.
As part of the political compromise that led to approval by Congress and the Legislature, the restoration project is also designed to provide enough drinking water to allow South Florida's population to double.
The two agencies that drained the Everglades, the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, are in charge of restoring it. The corps originally told Congress that the estimated $7.8-billion cost was a conservative estimate that was sure to drop.
Instead, it has climbed higher. Everglades restoration alone is now pegged at $10-billion, the GAO reported. Add in the other restoration projects needed for completely revamping the system - such as restoring the Kissimmee River, which the corps straightened into a ditch in the 1960s - and the cost increases from $15-billion to nearly $20-billion, the report says.
"We're concerned about how much it's going to cost, " said Anu Mittal, who wrote the GAO report.
"We are well aware of" the problems that the GAO found, said Dennis Duke, the corps' project manager for ecosystem restoration. The solution for both the delays and the cost overruns, he said, "is just get it done ... as soon as possible."
Of the 222 different projects involved in the Everglades restoration plan, 43 have been completed, 107 are being implemented, and 72 are in design, in planning or are not yet started, the GAO found.
However, "the projects most critical to the restoration's overall success ... are among those that are currently being designed, planned, or have not yet been started, " the GAO's investigators reported. "Some of these projects are behind schedule by up to 6 years."
Among those: a controversial plan to store 1-billion gallons of water in 333 deep wells scattered around Lake Okeechobee.
No one has ever attempted putting that many aquifer storage and recovery wells in one place in South Florida, and scientists say no one knows what could happen. Test wells were supposed to be dug in 2001 but were not started until 2006.
Also, the Everglades plan calls for turning a pair of limestone mining quarries into reservoirs, but the limestone is so porous that the water may leak out. Testing of solutions to that problem were to be finished by 2005, but the corps has pushed them back by up to a decade.