(News-Press.com) - The Army Corps of Engineers on Tuesday voted to delay Everglades restoration projects aimed at cleaning up Lake Okeechobee waters and sending lake water south, instead of west and east to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers.
Nearly $2 billion of projects were included in what many in this region expected to be the next round of the Everglades restoration. Money to fund the projects comes through a Water Resources and Development Act, or WRDA. The program started in 1974 with the idea of issuing similar funds every two years. The most recent bill was passed in 2007 and included $23 billion for 900 projects.
"Ignoring last summer's environmental and economic destruction, caused by the Corps of Engineers dumping of billions of gallons of polluted water into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers and estuaries, the Corps is showing callous disregard for the people and businesses affected by their actions," said Eric Eikenberg, Everglades Foundation CEO, in a statement.
Eikenberg said the Army Corps will be held responsible for future environmental and economic damage.
"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," he said. "The blame for this failure — and future damage to the environment and economy — now is squarely on the epaulets of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers."
Pete Quasis, a boating guide and member of Audubon of the Western Everglades, said he hopes the projects may still happen in the long run since other projects, many of which are under construction, must be completed before these larger water quality features can be built.
"This was an uphill battle, but the concern is legitimate," Quasis said. "We've gone through a long period of time where the bills haven't been on a consistent pattern. But the house leadership has consistently said they plan to get back to a two-year schedule."
But any projects included in this year's WRDA bill must be completed within the next several weeks; and without Army Corps support for this latest group, they likely won't make the cut. That could mean the projects may not be funded for years, if at all.
Eikenberg was not the only one surprised at Tuesday's vote.
"The Everglades Foundation, Audubon, Florida Wildlife Federation and the agriculture groups, this is where we've stood with one voice, that this is important," said Mitch Hutchcraft, a South Florida Water Management District governing board member who represents the agriculture industry and Southwest Florida. "I just hoped the federal government would listen to South Florida when they hear a broad range of voices who want to get something done."
Called the Central Everglades Planning Project, or CEPP, the projects are aimed at cleaning excess nutrients and pollution from Lake Okeechobee, which feeds the Everglades and provides drinking water for millions of Floridians.
The Water Management District voted earlier this month to be the state sponsor for the CEPP projects. The Army Corps was expected by many in this area to agree to be the federal partner for the work. Local politicians and environmental groups talked about the Army Corps vote as an almost-formality.
That's not how day ended, and representatives from groups such as the Everglades Foundation were clearly frustrated by the lack of action by the Army Corps, which controls Lake Okeechobee management and fresh water releases to the Caloosahatchee River.
Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane traveled to Washington, D.C., two weeks ago to lobby in favor of projects such as the reservoir.
"The significant rain event we had last summer shows the need for additional options for storage," Ruane said before the vote. "The only way to get that is to build the infrastructure."
Ruane said he and other elected officials had already moved one of the next phases of restoration: fixing the ailing dike system surrounding Lake Okeechobee.
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C-43 Reservoir: By the numbers
Money spent so far on land acquisition, design and site testing
Money that will be spent on recreational opportunities
Acre-feet of water storage
Maximum depth of reservoir storage cells
Permits needed to start construction
Source: South Florida Water Management District