Might The Obama Administration be More Invested in Everglades Restoration Than Its Predecessor?
Different administrations in Washington have different sets of priorities. That's understandable. For instance, while the Bush administration talked about helping restore the massive Everglades ecosystem, the Obama administration is sending signals it will work harder to push the project forward.
For example, the Obama administration has installed Terrence "Rock" Salt, a long-time veteran of the restoration effort, as deputy assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, a position key to keeping the various federal agencies involved with the restoration work on the same page.
Too, the director of the White House Council of Environmental Quality, Nancy Sutley, has appointed an associate director of land and water quality, a position deemed critical to keeping the White House in the loop of Everglades restoration.
And the administration has included roughly $200 million in its Fiscal 2010 budget the Everglades restoration work. True, that's a drop in the bucket when you look at the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan's latest price tag, of more than $10 billion. But it's a sign that the Obama administration seems to be invested in restoring the Everglades.
What's wrong with the Everglades? Just about ever since whites headed to south Florida they've built channels and dikes and canals in efforts to figure out how to drain the "River of Grass" for various reasons running from agriculture to real estate developments. While those many efforts haven't been entirely successful, they have produced more than a few kinks in the water system that flows both into and out of Lake Okeechobee.
Development has been so rampant in south Florida down through the past century that the boundaries of Everglades National Park protect only the southern fifth of the historic Everglades ecosystem, and external pressures are threatening even it.
Read the CERP and you'll learn about seven features needed to be accomplished to "get the water right." Those range from surface water storage reservoirs and aquifer storage and recovery projects to potentially removing 240 miles of canals and levees to "restore the historic overland sheetflow (of water) through the Everglades wetlands."
There's been much effort infused to "heal" the park, but that multi-billion-dollar restoration effort has had fits and starts that spur the question of how much good has been accomplished so far?
As John Adornato, Sun Coast regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, pointed out in a guest column nearly one year ago, the Tamiami Trail is an unnatural barrier that runs straight through the greater Everglades and blocks the flow of water to Northeast Shark River Slough, one of the Everglades’ most important passageways.
As Mr. Adornato noted, the highway "prevents the natural flow of water from north to south, through parched Everglades National Park, and out into Whitewater and Florida Bays. Currently, the native tree islands – natural characteristics of the historic Everglades – to the south in the national park are not getting enough water, while those north of Tamiami Trail are either flooded or have been severely degraded."
In 1989, the Modified Water Deliveries Project was adopted by the U.S. Congress to help restore natural water conditions in Everglades National Park, wrote Mr. Adornato. "Nineteen years have since passed, and we agree that it is time for the project to finally provide vital benefits to the park and the Everglades," he noted.
Fast-forward to the present: A bit earlier this year 41 groups signed off on a white paper (attached below) to Nancy Sutley, the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, urging the Obama administration to get behind the Everglades restoration.
Ecosystem restoration is an issue of national interest and should be a national priority. In particular, the protection and restoration of America's Everglades, the largest sub-tropical wilderness in the nation, and its associated ecological services is an essential part of a national ecosystem restoration program. Everglades restoration is important for job creation, public water supply, protecting our natural heritage and the unique south Florida environment, and mitigating effects from climate change. Most importantly, without the fiscal and political commitment of our federal government to the restoration partnership, we cannot hope to succeed in this visionary and groundbreaking effort.
"There just wasn’t enough prioritization for Everglades restoration," Mr. Adornato replies today when asked why the Bush administration didn't push harder for the restoration. "There was not a mandate from on high that the Everglades must be restored, which is what we saw with President Clinton. ... And (the Clinton administration) had leaders in certain organizations, like CEQ. You had someone like Carol Browner, Bill Leery, both of them saying, 'We want to make Everglades restoration happen, what are our obstacles and how do we overcome them?'
"We didn’t have that over the past eight years. And so this paper tries to identify those places where, with the right policy decision, things can move, and they can move quickly, and they can move in the right direction.”
That paper outlines what needs to be done to kick-start the restoration, from procuring funding for already authorized projects such as the Modified Water Deliveries to Everglades National Park that Mr. Adornato pointed to last year, the Kissimmee River Restoration, the Indian River Lagoon, and the Picayune Strand, to a request for expedited funding of $3 billion to pay for authorized projects during the next four years.
"It makes the most sense, considering the limited federal budget, to invest federal dollars in and implement shovel-ready Everglades restoration projects in the near term; they will deliver the most immediate ecosystem restoration benefits to the natural system," reads one section of the white paper.
The restoration of the Everglades is not entirely wildlife-related. Rather, it's an ecosystem-wide endeavor that will benefit not only alligators, crocodiles, snakes, birds, fish and vegetation, but also south Florida's human populations.
"What is important is the cost to south Florida continues to rise for not doing the restoration, whether it's our water supply, flood protection issues, or just the quality of life," says Mr. Adornato. "People come to Florida to go fishing in our estuaries, to go fishing in Florida Bay, to sit on the beaches, to enjoy the natural scenery and the wildlife that we have. And if we don't restore the Everglades, then those pieces will decline, continue to decline."