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Everglades Restoration at Critical Juncture

The epic task of restoring and preserving the Everglades faces a major new hurdle in the coming weeks, as a draft report on implementation of the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) comes under review by the general public and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Finalizing the plan in timely fashion is critical, as a deadline for inclusion in federal funding expires at year's end. Money for the project is tied up in the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), a wide-ranging set of laws renewed at irregular intervals, sometimes up to ten years. If the Everglades goes that much longer without massive reengineering, one of the great wonders of the natural world may never recover.

An effort to undo decades of environmental damage caused by Florida's rampant growth in the 20th Century, CEPP is a critical element of a broader project called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. CERP has been called "the most expensive and comprehensive environmental repair attempt in history."

The plan is a massive plumbing job, redirecting the flow of water out of Lake Okeechobee, cleaning it, and sending it south along its original, historic path to the Central Everglades. Currently, Lake O discharges are thick with pollutants and flow east and west, to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee River estuaries.

CERP was authorized when WRDA was renewed in 2000, but the going has been slow. A 2012 report by the National Research Council gave letter grades on Everglades ecosystem attributes ranging from C (degraded) to D (significantly degraded) to F (near irreversible damage). Overall, the council warned, "a focus on restoring the central core of the historical Everglades is needed to reverse ongoing degradation before it's too late."

The draft version of CEPP was approved August 15 by a unanimous vote of the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District. The plan's $1.8 billion price tag is to be split by the district and the Corps of Engineers. But no new funding will be committed without authorization by Congress, under WRDA.

That authorization now depends on action in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate having already passed its version of WRDA. With the House under the thumb of the GOP's Taliban Tea Party wing, what happens next is anyone's guess. Already, Sauron's minions at Barad-dûr right-wing intellectuals at the Heritage Foundation are working to limit and hobble the bill.

The House's markup will begin next month under the direction of Congressman Bill Shuster, chair of the transportation and infrastructure committee. He has questioned the Senate's version of the bill, vowing to produce a version that will "contain no earmarks," "cut federal red tape," and minimize executive branch authority. (In other words, do it on the cheap, avoid regulatory oversight, and keep Obama out of it.) Though a decidedly conservative politician, Shuster still finds himself under pressure to prove his bona fides to the crazies.

Still, significant forces outside the usual progressive/environmentalist bloc and with clout in GOP circles are lined up in support of Everglades action. Industry group Florida Realtors is onboard.

Even Big Sugar, so often cast as the villain, is speaking out. In an email, Brian Hughes, a spokesman for industry group Florida Sugar Farmers, told New Times that his group's members "support legislation that marks the final phase of the southern Everglades restoration process. The most important factor to keep restoration moving forward is cooperation, so we applaud the state and federal officials on their efforts to work together."

If business reps put their shoulders to the wheel, WRDA may emerge with substantial funding for the Everglades. But if a final version of the Everglades plan isn't in place to submit to Congress before WRDA passes, the environmental damage could be irreversible.

As things now stand, and if all goes well, the final plan will likely come up for approval at the November 14 meeting of the South Florida Water Management District's governing board.

Public comments on the plan are being accepted through October 14, here. Also, a series of evening public meetings will be held the week of September 16 throughout South Florida to discuss the draft report, times and dates to be announced here.

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact [email protected].

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