CAPTIVA, Fla. (AP) The U.S. Interior Department remains committed to Everglades restoration, but the complexities of such a vast project — the largest of its kind in the world — can oftentimes get bogged down in bureaucracy, the agency’s assistant secretary said Jan. 11.
“I find in Washington that we sometimes tangle ourselves in knots and that is frustrating,” Lynn Scarlett told a group gathering for the Everglades Coalition’s 23rd annual conference.
While acknowledging that the federal government lags behind the state in funding for projects, Scarlett said the “Everglades is among our highest priorities.”
“Yes, we are behind schedule,” she said. “Yes, available funds have not matched expectations. Yes, we are a long way from achieving the restoration results that each and every one of us gathered here wants.”
In fact, late last year, Gary Hardesty, the Everglades restoration chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said action had lagged so much, the government could no longer estimate how much it will cost or how long it will take to restore the River of Grass.
The overall project, approved in 2000 and formally known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP, was originally estimated to cost $7.8 billion and take 30 years. By last year, the price tag had ballooned to more than $10.5 billion, and experts said it could take 50 years or more.
The deal called for the state and federal government to split the cost. To date, Florida has committed more than $2 billion and pushed ahead alone on a few projects, while the federal government has appropriated only several million dollars.
The corps now plans to re-evaluate how to move ahead and approach projects slower and more deliberately in hopes of achieving success incrementally.
“This landscape has been touched mightily by human hands for a century,” Scarlett said. “This is a complex matter.”
There is hope, however.
Last year, Congress passed a water projects bill over President Bush’s veto that includes about $1.8 billion for Everglades restoration. But the bill only approves the funds. It doesn’t allocate them. In fact, there are items in a 2000 water projects bill that have yet to be funded.
Still, Gov. Charlie Crist expressed optimism.
“I have great confidence that they are going to ... follow through and do what we’ve been encouraging them to do for a long time ... to make sure the Everglades gets the appropriate funding,” Crist said after speaking to the group.
The Everglades once covered 4 million acres (1.6 million ha) of swampland but has shrunk to half its size as dikes, dams and diversions were built to make way for population growth and farms.
The swampland that remains is in ecological distress.
The CERP projects — signed into law by President Clinton — called for the construction of reservoirs, back-filling of canals and rerouting of water to rescue the fast-shrinking Everglades and preserve the remarkable variety of plants and wildlife.
But as projects lag, land prices soar and construction costs skyrocket. Meantime, wildlife habitat continues to disappear and pollution is killing native plants.
Some projects to benefit the Everglades have seen progress, like restoration efforts in the Kissimmee River basin, which feeds the swamp, construction of reservoirs, reductions in phosphorous levels carried by fertilizers and runoff and acquisition of land.
But the only work that has been done on any of CERP’s 68 projects has been on paper.
Carol Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, in charge of Everglades restoration for the state, noted that not all beneficial work is contained in CERP.
“It is CERP and more,” including Kissimmee restoration, Wehle said.
Since CERP was passed, scientists and engineers have learned a lot, Wehle noted. Specifically, she said, the trick isn’t to fix the ecosystem with massive amounts of additional engineering, but to minimize construction and maximize natural solutions.
“Mimicking Mother Nature is always best as opposed to trying to manage her,” Wehle said.
John Adornato, of the National Parks Conservation Association, said hope is also seen in the upcoming presidential elections.
“We’re going to have a new administration and a new direction,” Adornato said. “We’re going to have the opportunity to move forward.”
He also said delays were expected, but that the Army Corps of Engineers must move ahead soon.
“They’ve been an agency that has manipulated Mother Nature for the benefits of humans for decades,” Adornato said. “What we’re asking them to do now is do it for the benefit of Mother Nature.”