The restoration of the Everglades depends on money, permits, court orders, phosphorus-sucking plants, unprecedented feats of engineering and the ability of the South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers to get along.
It has been 13 years since the federal/state partnership was blessed in the Water Resource Development Act of 2000. Despite the occasional kumbaya photo-ops since then, behind closed doors the relationship has not always been cozy.
This summer, as high water levels in Lake Okeechobee have prompted the release of billions of gallons of polluted lake water into the St. Lucie Estuary and Caloosahatchee River, the public has had an opportunity to see how the partnership works.
The most visible example is the ongoing ecological crisis sparked by record-setting rainfall throughout the region. The rain raised Lake Okeechobee so high that the corps, which owns the aged dike around the lake, began releasing water into the estuary to the east and river to the west.
At first the releases were small pulses of fresh water. But as the rains continued, the corps decided to fully open the locks. The massive, unabated flow of lake water, coupled with runoff from lawns and roads, has decimated oyster beds, sea grasses and left the water so contaminated that it is no longer fit for swimming.
The problem for the water management district — which does not control the lake level or the opening of the locks — is that it gets blamed for both. The myth has been so persistent for so long that in July the district issued a fact sheet explaining that the corps — not the district — is responsible for controlling the lake’s level.
Why the confusion?
“I think it’s because we’re closer to the people we serve,” said Ernie Barnett, the district’s interim executive director. The district does give the corps advice and data regarding the lake and “we don’t always agree with their decision but they take our thoughts into consideration,” Barnett said.
As for the locks, it is the corps that decides when to release water from the lake into the estuary.
“We don’t own them. We don’t operate them. We have no legal recourse,” Barnett said.
The partners also locked horns this summer over the Central Everglades Planning Project — a $1.8 billion suite of projects in the heart of the Everglades unveiled in October 2011. Instead of the six to seven years it normally took the corps to move a project from concept to plan, CEPP would expedite the process to 18 months.
For the corps to move forward with CEPP, it needs a state partner that will agree to pay 50 percent of the costs. The district is the logical choice. However, the district is reluctant because it is under a court order that sets limits on water quality and quantity flowing south to the Everglades. A violation is virtually certain since water in some areas currently contains phosphorus levels hundreds of times above the limit.
Violating the court order would likely reignite a costly lawsuit that has stymied restoration efforts for years. Unless the corps and other federal agencies are willing to change the water quality standards or give the district some leeway if there is a violation, some members of the district’s governing board are reluctant to sign on.
“Nothing will happen on CEPP unless the water-quality issue is resolved,” said member James Moran at the Aug. 15 board meeting. “At some point we have to ask ourselves if our relationship with our federal partners is in our best interest. I think a good argument could be made that it is not.”
The corps and the district also have butted heads over sharing costs.
The district wants to split the cost of using its pumps, locks, levees, canals and water treatment areas for CEPP projects. An agreement was reached just hours before the Aug. 15 meeting, according to Barnett.
“There is a certain amount of understandable give and take and tugging and pulling between us and the federal government because we have different processes and reviews,” said Barnett, who has been involved in Everglades restoration for more than 20 years. “The state is much more agile at getting projects built, and the approval process is much more streamlined.”
In order to get the federal government to pay half the cost of CEPP, it must be included in the Water Resources Development Act, which Congress is expected to vote on early next year. If CEPP is not included, it will be be at least six years before Congress takes up another such funding bill.
That has put pressure on both the district and the corps. At its Aug. 15 meeting the board voted unanimously to release CEPP for public comment — a process that will take at least two months. The comments must then be reviewed before a final board vote.
As for the corps, it must complete a “chief’s report” before CEPP can be added to the bill. Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works Jo Ellen Darcy said recently that she doubts whether her agency can complete its report in time for this year’s bill.
Even if CEPP makes it into the appropriations bill, the district and corps also are at odds over how much credit the district should be given for money it already has spent on restoration efforts. To date, the district has spent nearly $1.5 billion on land and $323 million on construction but has not yet received any credits.
Some of that is because the district went forward with projects before they were authorized by Congress. After Congress authorizes them, the district can ask the corps for credit.
“From the corps’ perspective, anytime something is missing, we stop and ask for them to provide it,” said David Hobbie, the corps’ deputy for program and project management. “It’s a very tedious, long process.”
Hobbie said making everyone happy is an impossible task. The corps’ relationship is more like a marriage, Hobbie said.
“There are days we scratch our head and say, ‘what are they doing?’ and I’m sure days they say the same thing,” Hobbie said. “But at the end of the day we figure out a way to forge ahead.”