WASHINGTON — A new fast-track planning effort could shave years off the next phase of Everglades restoration, putting more fresh and clean water into the central and southern portions of Florida’s "River of Grass" more quickly.
A restoration task force that met Thursday in West Palm Beach, Fla., announced a rapid planning effort that, if approved by Congress, could transform how large public-works projects across the country are built. It’s also expected to cut the planning process for the next major restoration project in the central Everglades from six years to 18 months.
“The reality is the ecosystem has continued to degrade,” said Dawn Shirreffs, the Everglades restoration program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “We’re running out of time. We don’t have the time to spend six years on a project anymore.”
Thursday’s announcement came out of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ effort to streamline large projects nationwide. The Army corps decided to use the planning process for the next major restoration project, which will provide more a natural flow and deeper clean new water through the central Everglades and Everglades National Park, as a pilot.
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Previous plans were overly detailed, expensive and time-consuming, the Army Corps of Engineers found. The time — as well as data — being invested in studies wasn’t leading to a better product, officials said in materials that were prepared for Thursday’s task force meeting.
Also, projects in the Everglades had a tendency to be addressed one by one rather than simultaneously, Shirreffs said. But there are three components of Everglades cleanup, all intertwined, and all best addressed together, she said. Water can’t be moved unless it’s clean, it can’t be cleaned unless it’s stored and it can’t be stored unless it gets to the places designated for storage.
Cleaning up the pollution that's flowing into the Everglades requires reducing the phosphorus in the water to 10 parts per billion. Amounts any higher won’t stop changes in plant and animal life in the Everglades, a delicate ecosystem of marshlands and forests that's home to a variety of threatened species.
Because of high levels of phosphorus, cattails have been taking over the saw grass in the Everglades for decades. The pollutant has flowed from fertilizers on sugar and vegetable farms and the sprawling suburbs of South Florida.
The state was supposed to get to its phosphorus-reduction goal by 2012, but the Florida Legislature pushed back the deadline to 2016. Earlier this month, Florida Gov. Rick Scott met in Washington with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and offered some alternative plans for resolving some of the legal disputes over water quality in the Everglades, but he also said that Florida would need another six years.
The state's plans call for downsizing some construction projects and relying more on water storage on public and private lands. The plan, Scott said, puts to use land that's already in public ownership so that projects can be authorized and built promptly "at a reasonable cost to the taxpayers."
Specifically, the state will be looking for opportunities to use publicly owned land to store and treat water in the Everglades Agricultural Area — where farmlands exist amid the Everglades' water system — and move the water south to water conservation areas and Everglades National Park.
That’s expected to achieve more natural water circulation and tie together the state’s work north of the conservation areas and the Interior Department’s Tamiami Trail bridging project, along the highway that runs from Tampa to Miami, passing through the Everglades.
Last week, Salazar visited the Tamiami Trial project in Miami-Dade County. It’s one of the first bridges in a series of planned spans that would raise parts of the highway above the wetlands and eventually could restore the historic freshwater flow of the River of Grass to levels not seen in 80 years.
The federal government eventually would like to see 5.5 miles of bridges on Tamiami Trail, at an estimated cost of $324 million and to be built over four years. So far, it’s unclear whether money for the bridges will be budgeted, however.
Friday, officials will break ground on a separate project: a 12,000-acre reservoir in western Martin County, Fla., designed to improve the quality of the water in the St. Lucie Estuary and the southern portion of the Indian River Lagoon.
A congressional subcommittee will look next week at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plans to acquire more land in the Everglades for conservation, how it would be paid for and what effect it would have on public access and recreation within the refuge and conservation area.
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