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    Everglades restoration lags behind schedule

    Some of the work is delayed a year. Environmentalists worry that money and support for the plan will vanish.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2001


    Last fall, Congress approved an $8-billion plan to revive the Everglades, a move hailed by environmental groups. Now some of those environmental activists are grumbling because they say the plan is already falling behind schedule.

    "We've got a massive project that needs to stay on time and under budget if we're going to keep its political support," said Shannon Estenoz, co-chair of the Everglades Coalition, which represents more than 40 groups. "We haven't even started, and already we're not on time. We can't accept slippage like this, certainly not this early."

    Officials from Audubon of Florida have compiled a "slippage chart" showing that 22 projects have fallen behind their scheduled start dates, some by a few months, some by more than a year.

    "If we're not on schedule a year into the project, what does that mean four or five years down the road?" asked Stuart Strahl, president of Audubon of Florida.

    Tom Teets, a senior planner with the South Florida Water Management District, said state and federal officials are aware that some projects "have slipped a bit" from what was envisioned in the original plan unveiled in 1998. He said they are "fine-tuning the schedule" to catch up.

    "Our objective is still to complete projects on time," Teets said.

    The restoration plan calls for removing some levees and canals, injecting water deep underground for later use, turning some farms and limestone quarries into big reservoirs and raising the Tamiami Trail to allow the water to flow naturally beneath it.

    All the engineering and construction work is supposed to restore the River of Grass to a semblance of its former glory as well as provide enough drinking water for South Florida's population to double.

    One of the first projects is the C-43 Basin Storage Reservoir, a 20,000-acre reservoir in Hendry, Glades and Lee counties. The original Everglades plan called for starting work on it last June, but the work did not begin until last month, according to Audubon's chart.

    The most controversial element of the Everglades plan calls for injecting 1-billion gallons of freshwater into more than 300 deep wells, to be held as bubbles in the brackish aquifer 1,000 feet beneath the surface until needed.

    The process, called "aquifer storage and recovery," has been employed successfully by a few Florida utilities, but it has never been attempted on such a grand scale. Critics have pointed out that if it does not work, the Everglades plan offers no backup.

    The plan's architects with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District have planned several test wells. But none of them started on time. One test well began 14 months after its scheduled start. That one is next to Lake Okeechobee, where two-thirds of the wells are supposed to be built.

    Mary Barley of the Everglades Foundation wrote to federal officials this month to complain about the delays in a variety of projects "including the linchpin of restoration, the Talisman reservoir."

    Originally, work was supposed to start in July 1999 to turn the 62,000 acres of Talisman Plantation's sugar fields back into wetlands, with multiple reservoirs that could take up 50,000 acres. Twenty months later, sugar still grows on Talisman.

    Those reservoirs would have been helpful to counteract the state's ongoing drought, said Strahl, the Audubon president.

    Of greater concern to Audubon officials than the missed start dates is the possibility that the restoration plan could wind up short of money and miss out on buying essential land, Strahl said.

    "The price of land keeps going up," he said, to the point that the money set aside for land-buying is not able to keep up. Water board members said last month that they might need more money earlier than expected to deal with escalating land costs.

    Gov. Jeb Bush is asking the Legislature for $100-million for Everglades restoration this year, but Strahl said that may fall victim to state lawmakers' shifting priorities in a tough budget year.

    Money may explain part of the slipping Everglades schedule. Water district executive director Frank Finch wrote to Strahl last week that the original schedule was "not constrained by actual budget figures and cash flow and did not fully consider project-sequencing requirements."

    Teets and Stuart Appelbaum, the corps' chief Everglades planner, both said that the delays also resulted in large part from the difficulty in negotiating a partnership between the federal and state governments on who would pay the bills and do the design work.

    Environmental activists are not much interested in what went wrong, said Estenoz of the Everglades Coalition.

    "I don't care what your reasons are," she said she would tell government officials. "Get your act together and get back on schedule."

    -- Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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