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Florida Gets Lion's Share Of Water Bill For Port Expansion, Everglades Restoration

Ines Hegedus-Garcia/Wikimedia Commons

Florida is the big winner under the new Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which President Obama signed last week. The bill carries $12.3 billion in infrastructure spending for the entire nation and $3 billion of that is coming to the Sunshine State.

There's $2 billion in the bill to expand Florida ports for the new Panamax vessels and another billion to restart four long-stalled Everglades restoration projects. That's 25 percent of the entire appropriation.

'We made out like bandits!' -- Frederica Wilson

"We made out like bandits!" exulted U. S. Rep. Frederica Wilson at a news conference in Port Everglades.

Maybe. The locals have to front the money to get their projects underway and then wait for U. S. Army Corps of Engineers clearance to ask Congress to remit the funds. They could get stiffed, admits U. S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat who represents Broward and Palm Beach counties, but she doesn't think so.

"I think they're going to calculate on what the reward is," Frankel said. "And the reward will be greater than the risk."

WRRDA's overall purpose is to prepare U. S. waterways for the increased flow of cargo through the widened Panama Canal so a lot of the spending is aimed at Florida ports that need to be expanded and dredged out to accommodate the larger Panamax ships.

Port Everglades already handles Panamax vessels but their cargos are light because the water is still too shallow. WRRDA will pay about $400 million for dredging the navigation channels and turn-around basins so the new ships can bring in enough cargo to be worthwhile.

There's also funding in the bill for dredging and widening the port of Jacksonville, Port Canaveral and the Lake Worth Inlet. And money is being spent elsewhere on canals and other inland waterways so that cargo can easily make its way to markets from their ports of arrival.

WRRDA's work will deliver a $500 million dollar impact to the state economy, according to publicized estimates, after creating several thousand construction jobs and up to 100,000 as the economic benefits take hold.

The politics weren't easy, says Frankel, who helped engineer one of the largest work-arounds in the bill -- the build-now-hope-for-payment-later part. She says Congress' rules against "earmarks" -- funding set-asides for local projects -- made that arrangement necessary.

Wilson's task was to  assemble an ad hoc "ports caucus" of state cargo interests to advocate for their needs from a united front.

It wasn't immediately clear how Everglades restoration made it into a bill that's all about shipping and trade, or how it got to be the state's largest line item in WRRDA. But John Adornato, Sun Coast regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, was in no mood to quibble.

"Three billion dollars are coming to Florida and one billion are just for Everglades projects," he said. "This water bill is critical for advancing Everglades restoration. There are four projects in this bill that will help to restore America's Everglades."