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04/30/2014 at 10:50am

EvergladesEverglades Restoration Project
in Jeopardy

Lawmakers, environmental groups and local governments across the state are up in arms this week over a decision made last Tuesday by the Army Corps of Engineers to delay approval of the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP). The decision - which came, ironically, on Earth Day - came as a complete surprise to everyone as the South Florida Water Management District agreed earlier this month to be the state sponsor for CEPP, a vast $1.9 billion restoration project that is even supported by the sugar industry.

John Campbell, Public Affairs Specialist for the Corps' Jacksonville District, explained that a report on CEPP was submitted from the Jacksonville office to a leadership board in D.C. - the Civil Works Review Board (CWRB), a process that all projects must follow.

"They decided to hold off approval of the project until their staff could review all 8,000 pages of the recommended plan to make sure it complies with all applicable federal laws and policies,” he said. "There was nothing in opposition, only that staff hasn't had time to do the required reviewing in the three weeks since we've submitted it to them.”

Campbell told us that Civil Works' Board member Major General John Peabody assured his office on Tuesday morning that the Board would reconvene as quickly as possible to finalize the report, after which it will be released for a 30-day final public comment period.

"He told us this would happen no later than June,” Campbell said.

In a press release issued last week by Col. Alan Dodd, Jacksonville District commander, he said that efforts made so far on CEPP are 'monumental'.

"In less than three years, this team has accomplished what has previously taken six to ten years to complete,” the release reads. "This challenging feat has required us all to step outside of our comfort zones and standard timeline durations to deliver a final plan that will set the foundation for our future restoration efforts. The one thing that cannot be rushed on the final report for this complex project is ensuring that it meets the Corps’ required quality standard.”

Of concern is whether or not that will happen in time for CEPP to be included in appropriations for the recently passed Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). These Acts - which is how federal Everglades projects are funded - were originally designed to be passed every two years when they were set up in 1974 but have recently been taking a lot longer, with the last one being passed in 2007. Because of this, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Gov. Rick Scott and eight members of Congress wrote letters to the Corps last week urging it to approve the plan before the end of April.

"The window for authorization of CEPP is closing,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida.

The Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) are the ones tasked with managing the lake's levels and water releases. In the winter dry season, water is kept in the lake and parceled out to those that need it -a system that most often favors agricultural interests at the expense of the rivers. Those same two rivers essentially double as 'relief valves' for the lake in the summer, when too much water endangers the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike. Some water can be sent south into treatment marshes, but those reach capacity quickly - leaving the Corps with no other choice than to flush the excess out to sea via the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

In August of 2013, Jenn Miller of the Army Corps of Engineers told us that the projects contained within CEPP are designed to help change that.

"CEPP allows projects on land already in public ownership to allow more water to be directed south to the central Everglades, Everglades National Park and Florida Bay while protecting coastal estuaries," she told us.

Scott wrote the Corps a letter on the day after the decision, urging them to make it a priority.

"Just this month, the South Florida Water Management District took historic action in approving CEPP, and yesterday the federal government added more bureaucratic hurdles in our efforts to restore water quality, and send the water south,” he said. "We’ve worked closely with our federal and local partners, and we need officials in Washington to act with more urgency in adopting these projects. The federal government must make CEPP a priority.

Last Friday, US Representative Patrick Murphy, a Democrat from Jupiter wrote another letter that was signed by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Reps. Ander Crenshaw (R-FL), Ted Deutch (D-FL), Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL), Lois Frankel (D-FL), Joe Garcia (D-FL), Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), Bill Posey (R-FL), Tom J. Rooney (R-FL), and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL).

"We are writing to express our extreme disappointment with the Army Corps Civil Works Review Board’s decision to delay proceeding forward with finalizing the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) and to urge the Corps to reconvene as quickly as possible in order to finalize the CEPP Chief’s Report,” the letter states. "We welcome members of the Review Board to witness first-hand the serious environmental problems that the completion of CEPP will help address, such as the damage that releases from Lake Okeechobee have on the coastal estuaries and the communities that depend on the water quality of their local waterways.'

"We again urge the Army Corps to move forward as expeditiously as possible. Please provide us with a written response that includes the upcoming dates and schedule for the Army Corps’ plans to finalize CEPP.”

Even Big Sugar has weighed in with their support, with U.S. Sugar Vice-President of public affairs releasing a statement last week urging the Corps to move forward quickly.

"Sugar farmers support CEPP and other restoration projects that also will provide benefits to Lake Okeechobee and the coastal estuaries as well as the Everglades," he said.

But Campbell told us that, even if the CWRB had approved the report last week, it was still a long shot to make it into this year's WRDA.

"Headquarters has about 3 months once the final report is approved in which to submit a Chief's Report to Congress,” he said. "This is normal, and we are seeing other projects that went before the CWRB in December get their signatures just now. This wasn't the result that our district wanted, and we realize we need to make progress to streamline this process, but we recognize that our D.C. partners wanted to thoroughly vet this before signing off on it, and it's no small feat we've gotten to this point on a project of this size.”

Finally, Campbell told us that since there is a great deal of support for CEPP in Washington, the project might still make the cut.

"The Corps doesn't control the schedule on what gets approved by WRDA and what doesn't, so anything is possible,” he said.

Keri Hendry Weeg