Central Everglades Planning Project faces state, federal bureaucratic hurdles
- By Jonathan Mattise
- Posted August 1, 2013 at 4 a.m.
“Bureaucratic gobbledygook” could be to blame if a wide-spanning Everglades plan, which would help the battered St. Lucie Estuary, collects dust for seven more years.
Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg voiced that concern about the Central Everglades Planning Project in a letter last month.
By the end of 2013, the $2 billion initiative needs to be in the federal Water Resources Development Act that Congress is considering. The plan could reduce the highest level Lake Okeechobee releases into the St. Lucie by 50 percent.
The next version of the federal water bill may not pass for seven years, Eikenberg said. The last one went through Congress in 2007, was vetoed by President George W. Bush and the U.S. House overrode the veto.
It’s not as simple as slip-something-into-this-bill, however. Environmentalists and state and federal lawmakers are nursing an intergovernmental headache over the back-and-forth to move the project along.
The federal project, which would spare estuaries by sending more Lake Okeechobee water south, still needs a local government to agree on sharing project costs. South Florida Water Management District and the Army Corps of Engineers continue to hash out details of a preliminary plan to do that. The initiative first rolled out in October 2011.
Eikenberg said that during conversations at the Pentagon, the Army Corps told him the local sponsor needed to step up by July. The district’s July board meeting passed without a commitment, and a subsequent special meeting never happened, despite the Everglades Foundation’s urging.
“Shame on all of us if we allow bureaucratic gobbledygook to cause delay and solutions missed,” Eikenberg wrote in a July letter to the district.
Kevin Powers, vice chairman of the board, said the district has been waiting to see the Corps’ draft proposal.
The district board won’t meet again until Aug. 14 and 15 at its West Palm Beach headquarters. Based off normal Corps time frames for this type of project, Congress wouldn’t receive the Everglades report until 2014, said Eric Bush, planning and policy division chief for the Corps.
The process requires more public and agency comment, paperwork, approvals and deadlines — an anticipated 240 days from whenever the district agrees to a draft, according to the Corps.
Eikenberg stressed they are quibbling over draft wording that can be changed later in the process. He guessed that the late start puts the project at a 50-50 tossup just to make it into this water bill.
“We’re trying to keep everybody focused in an elementary style here,” Eikenberg said. “This is like a perfect civics example. Let’s just get it authorized.”
It took months to work out agreeable wording about how the water would flow south through state-owned water quality facilities, including liability issues. Some cost-share proposals still need Corps approval, said Kim Taplin, chief of the Corps’s Central Everglades branch.
But Bush said he expects the Corps and district to approve the draft by the Aug. 15 meeting.
It helps that the Central Everglades plan has the attention of President Obama’s administration. But Bush couldn’t guarantee how much more quickly the process could move.
“There could be a pull from the administration which could shorten some of those time frames, but not all of them because some of them are sort of statute driven,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Jupiter, said he’s working with the Senate and the Corps to make sure everything is in line.
“It’s very frustrating,” Murphy said. “The government bureaucracy is something that drives me nuts. As much as we try to streamline it, if it’s something that’s a longer project to do, we just have to work within the parameters there now.”
State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said it’s “no time for excuses or delay.” He’s pushing the district to move the project along.
Powers said even with a late start, he thinks the Central Everglades project won’t sit idly for years.
“It’s such an important issue that the policymakers, the Corps, right on up through their system, to the elected officials, they’ll make it happen,” Powers said.
CENTRAL EVERGLADES PLANNING PROJECT TIME FRAME
If the Army Corps follows its standard time frame, the planning phases of an Everglades project to send more water south could stretch into 2014. That would miss a Dec. 31 deadline to send project details to Congress, which needs to include the project in a water bill that will be passed for the first time in seven years. Everglades advocates worry the project could be shelved until 2020.
Army Corps officials said there are some phases that potentially can be accelerated, but many are set in stone by statute. It’s also an initiative highly prioritized by President Obama’s administration.
Here is a look at the Central Everglades Planning Project, based on the Army Corps’ standard time frame:
Army Corps of Engineers presents South Florida Water Management District with a draft report of Central Everglades plan
South Florida Water Management District votes on draft report (possibly at Aug. 15 meeting)
A 60-day period begins for review by the public and by state and federal agencies
Revisions are made by Corps, a final report is prepared, lasting a minimum of 30 to 45 days
Army Corps of Engineers headquarters approves the report
Final report recirculated for a second round of state and federal agency review, lasting 30 days
A chief of engineers report is prepared, sent to the Secretary of the Army for approval and then transmitted to Congress for consideration; standard time of 120 days
The target date to include projects in the federal Water Resource Development is Dec. 31
CENTRAL EVERGLADES PLANNING PROJECT
Adopted by state and federal officials in October 2011, the Central Everglades Planning Project aims to send more Lake Okeechobee water south.
The $2 billion initiative would use publicly owned land to divert more water into the central Everglades, Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.
It would reduce the highest lake releases into the St. Lucie Estuary by 50 percent. The plan also would benefit the Caloosahatchee River, which endures similar releases to the west.