(News-Press.com) - President Barack Obama signed a water quality and infrastructure bill Tuesday that is expected to bring hundreds of millions in federal money to Lee Countyfor the Caloosahatchee Reservoir.
Called the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, or WRRDA, the bill is aimed at cleaning up waterways and improving ports, harbors and other shipping infrastructure. Eight projects in Florida are on the list, which must now pass through an appropriations stage before work can begin.
"It's checking the box and moving these forward so we can get these submitted to Congress (for the final funding vote)," said Jenn Miller with the Army Corps of Engineer's Jacksonville office. "It's kind of like conveyor belt, we're all working to move these forward and to get things constructed."
Local politicians and environmental groups have pushed the federal government to fund the reservoir for years, citing algae blooms, closed swimming beaches and massive freshwater plumes as reasons why this area needs the 55-billion gallon reservoir.
"We haven't had a WRRDA bill in seven years, so it's a win for Southwest Florida," said Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane. "It's going to help create essential jobs and its going to also continue to deal with the environment and the economy and pair the two together. Everyone seems to understand that correlation."
Ruane said work could begin this year on the reservoir, a water storage compound that water quality experts say will address more than one-third of the stormwater runoff problems within the Caloosahatchee River watershed. The reservoir is expected to cost $630 million, with the Army Corps and the state splitting the cost.
Historically, WRRDA bills were issued every two years, but the federal government has not made this type of allocation in seven years. Ruane said he feels confident that the federal funds will be available again in 2016.
"Everyone I've talked on the appropriations side says we're going to be happy," Ruane said.
South Florida environmental groups lauded Tuesday's signing as well, saying the region has long been in need of federal money to battle growing water quality challenges.
"C-43 will definitely improve conditions in the river, and this is a critical step toward construction," said Jennifer Hecker with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
The Conservancy and other groups had chided the Army Corps for not moving ahead quickly with a series of Everglades restoration projects called the Central Everglades Planning Project, or CEPP, a suit of water quality and quantity projects that carry a $1.9 billion cost.
"They are intended to be passed every two years because there are important projects all over the country that need to be authorized," Hecker said. "What happens is we accumulate a back-log of projects, and that makes it difficult to find funding because you have an enormous price tag. Having the CEPP in need of authorization will help motivate more timely funding in the future."