Finally, on July 25, after 18 months of silence, the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force is scheduled to convene in Washington, D.C., to discuss next steps for Everglades restoration. As Floridians know, the intergovernmental restoration effort is the world’s largest infrastructure project that will, when complete, bring economic and environmental benefits for a vast region that ranks 13th in the nation in population and economic output.
The congressionally chartered Task Force, co-chaired by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and the state of Florida, fosters the necessary collaboration needed to line up funding, engineering capability and science to get restoration done. The Task Force meeting could not come at a more important time. Several issues require immediate attention.
However, before launching into what needs to be done now, it is good to reflect on recent progress. First, the Water Resources Development Act now winding its way through Congress authorizes the Central Everglades Plan to send greater supplies of fresh water through expanded storm water treatment areas to the remaining natural Everglades. Details are still to be worked out on how this new water will be allocated among environmental and urban interests, but this is a good first step to address a water deficit that is well known and documented by restoration scientists as well as the National Academy of Sciences.
Despite this progress, there are troubling issues that require immediate attention from top officials gathering in Washington. First, federal funding must be increased. To date, the state of Florida is ahead of the federal government on the legally mandated 50-50 cost share. Funding for the Army Corps of Engineers and its Everglades restoration projects has been reduced in recent years. However, every dollar invested in Everglades restoration produces $4 in economic benefits, so it defies logic to cut the Army Corps’ restoration budget. Accordingly the Task Force and Zinke should advocate to the Office of Management and Budget and President Trump that the president’s budget for the next fiscal year include at least $200 million in Everglades restoration construction funding for the Army Corps of Engineers. This is a significant increase of more than $100 million over current funding levels. Past Democratic and Republican administrations have prioritized the Everglades by including funding at this level, and the Trump administration should do so, too.
Next, the Task Force must address the harmful discharges of polluted water that are now flowing unchecked into the St. Lucie estuary in Martin County. Specifically, the Task Force should establish an advisory body to recommend to the Army Corps and Florida specific operational changes to the Central and Southern Florida Project, including the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule. That may be taken within current law to prevent harmful discharges of water to the St. Lucie Estuary when toxic algae blooms occur in Lake Okeechobee. The advisory body should provide a report within 60 days and, if changes in the law are needed to achieve this goal, the Task Force should recommend them so that they might be enacted into law. Toxic discharges are harmful to human health and the environment. They need to stop now.
Last, the Task Force should think ahead to next steps for restoration, including launching additional public planning to address acquiring additional lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area that are needed to increase the ability to capture water sent to tide and send it south to the Everglades. Aside from being the solution to the discharge of polluted water from the lake, restoration scientists agree that additional lands to provide water to the Everglades and a public planning process, including the sugar companies, are needed. Planning takes time. It is the first step in a multi-step process that requires congressional authorization and funding. The Everglades and the South Florida economy do not have time to wait. This effort needs to start now.
Don Jodrey is Visiting Professor of Practice at Wake Forest University Law School in North Carolina.