Senate OKs Multi-Billion Dollar Everglades Restoration Bill

By Cat Lazaroff and Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, September 26, 2000 (ENS) - Plans for the world’s most massive wetlands renewal drew another step closer to reality Monday when the U.S. Senate passed a bill to fund the first installment of the $7.8 billion Everglades restoration project.

But the bill faces fierce opposition in its next hurdle - the House of Representatives - and critics say even this enormous price tag may not be enough to save Florida’s sea of grass.

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Aerial view of Everglades National Park, which covers about one-fifth of the total Everglades wetland area (Two photos courtesy South Florida Water Management District)
With an 85 to one vote, the Senate voted to approve the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) under the Water Resources Development Act of 2000. The bill authorizes multiple federal and state agencies to begin protecting and restoring the Everglades, one of the nation’s most endangered ecosystems.

"For the first time in history, we have a comprehensive plan for making the heart of the Everglades pulse once again with clean, abundant water," said Carol Browner, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The restoration plan incorporates dozens of separate projects to be completed over the next 30 to 40 years. The Senate legislation authorizes the first $1.4 billion installment for the first 11 projects and four pilot engineering projects, all designed to show results within the next 10 years.

Water storage, storm water treatment areas, agricultural storage reservoirs, building bridges, raising a highway and new monitoring systems will work together to rebuild the Everglades.

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Agricultural runoff pours into the Everglades wetlands
The Senate bill provides a 50/50 cost share between the federal government and the state of Florida on the total $7.8 billion dollar project. This unique cost sharing partnership will allow for the protection and restoration of four national parks, sixteen national wildlife refuges, a national marine sanctuary and more than five million acres of federally owned and managed land.

"Today we took a major step toward ensuring the restoration of America's Everglades," said Vice President Al Gore, a major supporter of the legislation. "The time to save the Everglades is at hand. I urge the House to adopt this bill in an expeditious manner so that we can begin the restoration of this national treasure."

Though the Everglades restoration plan enjoys support from both Republicans and Democrats, and a large number of agricultural, community, business and environmental groups in Florida, it could easily be derailed in the House, which is scheduled to end its legislative session on October 6 - a deadline less than two weeks away.

One major issue: the final price tag of the restoration. Many of the planned projects involve untested technology or techniques that could boost the $7.8 billion estimated costs by millions or billions of dollars.

During Senate hearings on the plan, Senator John Warner, a Virginia Republican, warned the project could become "a giant sucking machine," draining federal and state resources.

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Endangered wood stork in the Everglades (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who cast the lone "nay" vote against the bill, said he was concerned that the legislation does not cap the necessary funds or the timetable for the restoration.

Earlier this month, the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, issued a report concluding that the final costs could indeed rise.

Senator George Voinovich, the Ohio Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee on transportation and infrastructure, asked the GAO to prepare a report on the restoration plan that described the role that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would play in addressing the major water quality concerns in the Everglades ecosystem.

Voinovich also asked the GAO to identify any modifications that might be needed as the Corps implements the plan after it has been authorized by Congress.

The GAO report concludes that there are "too many uncertainties" to estimate the number and costs of the Corps projects that will ultimately be needed to address water quality in the Everglades ecosystem.

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A handful of endangered panthers remain in the depths of the Everglades. (Photo courtesy Everglades Area Chamber of Commerce)
"As uncertainties related to implementing the Plan's projects are resolved and more information is gathered about the extent of the ecosystem's water quality problems, it is likely that modifications and additions to the Plan will be necessary and that these changes could increase the total cost of the plan over the Corps' current estimate of $7.8 billion," the GAO report states.

The GAO report cites a number of examples to back up this claim, such as the uncertainties surrounding the cleanup of Lake Okeechobee.

The state of Florida is currently in the process of evaluating the level of pollutants in the lake, and what actions might be needed to clean it. One of the alternatives under consideration - dredging the lake to remove contaminated sediment - could cost over $1 billion, the GAO report notes.

Because the lake is the source of so much water in the ecosystem, the Corps could become involved in the effort if it determines that the lake's cleanup is essential to the restoration of the ecosystem, the report says.

The GAO report acknowledges that the Corps has objected to the notion that the $1 billion lake dredging could become part of the plan.

Still, the GAO report stand by its conclusion.

Everglades

Everglades National Park is a World Heritage Site, an International Biosphere Reserve, and a Ramsar Wetland of International Significance (Photo courtesy National Park Service)
"We continue to believe that projects to improve the lake's water quality - if deemed essential to restore the ecosystem - should be included in the Plan," states the GAO report.

The report released this month is the GAO's third investigation on the efforts to restore water quality in the South Florida ecosystem.

"This plan is not without risk," said Senator Bob Smith, the New Hampshire Republican who chairs the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, arguing in favor of the plan. "But if we do nothing, we lose the Everglades. We need to take this risk to save this precious ecosystem."

Environmentalists are almost unanimously in favor of the plan. Defenders of Wildlife president Rodger Schlickeisen said the Senate vote "represents historic victories for the Everglades, wildlife, and the citizens of our nation."

"This restoration plan will bring relief both to the heart of the Everglades and to the marine environment that surrounds it," said David Guggenheim, Ph.D., vice president for conservation policy at the Center for Marine Conservation.

Dan Beard, senior vice president for public policy at the National Audubon Society, said the "historic accord" enjoys an "unprecedented level of support."

"However, this is not the time to celebrate," said Beard. "The single greatest threat to the restoration of America’s Everglades remains the lack of time left in this congressional session."