The mix of organizations and agencies involved in the Everglades is about as complex as the ecosystem itself: the South Florida Water Management District, the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency, the federal departments of transportation, justice and agriculture and the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes are just some of them.
From the headwaters of the Everglades south to Florida Bay, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the lead federal agency on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) -- a 30-plus year project. It’s now 15 years old and has doubled from its original cost, according to an update this month from the Corps to Congress. It’s a massive ecosystem restoration project in which the Corps’ doesn't conduct its usual financial cost-benefit analysis. It's judged on its environmental benefits.
"It is the highest-percentage-supported aquatic ecosystem restoration project in our nation," said Col. Jason Kirk, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District. "About 30 percent of the nation’s aquatic ecosystem restoration goes toward the Everglades. That’s higher than any other project."
That's just half of the dollars directed at fixing the Everglades. The state of Florida is responsible for the other half. The goal of the CERP is to capture and redirect the fresh water that now is let out of the east and west sides of Lake Okeechobee. That water is blamed for ecological disasters along coast estuaries. Meantime, not enough fresh water at the southern end of the Everglades is blamed for dying seagrass on the bottom of Florida Bay.
Separate from the Everglades restoration is $700 million being spent on rehabilitating the Hoover Dike. The earthen dam has been holding back the waters of Lake Okeechobee since the early 1930s. The lake is the source of water for the high-value farmland in the Everglades Agricultural Area. It’s also the historic source of water for the Everglades ecosystem -- water that now finds its way to the east and west coasts of Florida. When the lake level rises like it did in December and January, a lot more of that water finds its way out of the lake a lot faster and a lot dirtier, hurting the rivers, wildlife, and tourism businesses.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for the lake level and for the bowl of dirt, rocks and shells making up the Hoover Dike that holds its water in.
Is the dike safer today?
"Every element of construction helps, but because we still have gaps, the short answer is no; we’re not much safer today than we were a year ago. But every element does help get us towards that," Kirk said.
He said the Corps is finishing another study along the perimeter of the dike. He anticipates that this study will call for another $700 million investment in addition to the current rehabilitation spending.
The lake has been managed at a lower level since the Corps undertook a national removal of its levee system after Hurricane Katrina. However, Kirk would not commit on whether the fixes to the dike, once complete, would have the Corps return the lake level to its higher capacity. "It is possible that it could hold more water, but that is not necessarily going to be the outcome."
WLRN's Sunshine Economy spoke with Kirk about the U.S. Army Corp of Engineer's responsibility regarding Everglades restoration.
Q: What is the Corps’ highest priority when it comes to its responsibilities regarding the Everglades?
A: Regarding the Everglades, [it is] aquatic ecosystem restoration. The principal efforts back in the 1948 Central and South Florida Project were fundamentally about flood risk management. That was the No. 1 driver of the 1948 effort. Now, with the 2000 and beyond effort, the primary effort is restoration. It’s important to note that there’s also the imperative to maintain the water supply commitments and maintain the flood risk management benefits of the system while restoring the system. When we talk about this restoration, we say we’re trying to get the water right. Getting the water right is about quality, quantity, timing and distribution. How much of it? How clean is it? When does it move? And where does it move? Those are all the elements that are being attended to in this restoration effort.
Q: How does the Corps balance all the stakeholders in this effort? Public safety and the Hoover Dike [around the waters of Lake Okeechobee]? Recreation and fishing? Environmental aspects? Real estate protection with flood control? And of course the agriculture industry?
A: It starts with the fundamental premise that this is a restoration effort. We’re looking at the benefits gained in our flexibility with water distribution, improvements to water quality. And that’s in multiple directions. Right now, the system does not allow us to move as much water south as we envision in the ultimate plan. So we move water in great quantities both east and west when it’s burdening Lake Okeechobee. We do not have as many options.
The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers is not in the business of buying land for reservoirs, is it?
A: The state of Florida has the responsibility to acquire the lands that then become part of the Everglades restoration.
Q: The five-year report card on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project acknowledged that the costs continue rising. In 2000, the total cost of the plan was just over $8 billion. Now it’s about twice that. What is that return on investment for South Florida?
A: What are the benefits? The improved health of Lake Okeechobee. The water in Lake Okeechobee and the water going out of Lake Okeechobee will have less of a nutrient load. Therefore the freshwater releases to the estuaries will be decreased and the water that goes out will be cleaner. The water to Florida and Biscayne bays will be cleaner. The increased water that will get to Florida and Biscayne bays has a value in helping address sea level rise. Part of the manifestation of sea level rise is the salt water intrusion can creep further in subsurface and surface water.
The policy that guides us in an ecosystem restoration project is a little bit different compared to a navigation project such as dredging Port Everglades. The aquatic ecosystem restoration benefits only need to equal the cost as we amortize the economic benefits.