The significance of President Biden’s move to fast-track the reservoir funding cannot be understated. It amplifies the overwhelming commitment he’s already made to the River of Grass, and it removes any budgetary or bureaucratic uncertainty as to whether the linchpin of our restoration efforts will advance.
When the system works, the Everglades and the people win | Editorial
By Sun Sentinel Editorial Board
Gov. Ron DeSantis and President Joe Biden disagree on just about everything. Fortunately, they agree on the Everglades.
Two weeks ago, the Biden administration committed $265 million to an above-ground reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. It’s the most important project remaining on the to-do-list for the 22-year-old Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
The recent good news continued this week with DeSantis’ veto of Senate Bill 2508. The legislation was a Hail Mary effort by the sugar industry to maintain the lake as a private reservoir for farmers during droughts.
The first version of the bill was an abomination, and a weakened revision was still tilted far too heavily toward agriculture interests. Environmental groups, fishing guides, local officials and others lobbied aggressively for a DeSantis veto.
In a related move, DeSantis also vetoed a $350 million budget item for underground reservoirs north of the lake. Sugar growers had backed that plan as a better alternative than the southern reservoir for dealing with releases of polluted lake water to the southeast and southwest coasts.
One goal of the southern reservoir, though, is to hold water until it can be treated and released to the Everglades. The growers’ plan would have kept that water from helping The River of Grass — and from helping to replenish public well fields in Broward.
SB 2508 and the $350 million underground reservoir boondoggle were priorities of Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. He’s running for agriculture commissioner. Simpson owns a large egg-farming operation in Pasco County, among other ventures.
DeSantis offered more than the vetoes. The new state budget includes $500 million for Everglades restoration. According to the governor’s office, Florida has committed $3.3 billion in the last four years toward preserving the 50% that remains of the original Everglades.
It’s a welcome bipartisan trend. In January, Biden announced that $1.1 billion from last year’s infrastructure bill would go toward Everglades restoration. For perspective, that’s 15% of the money nationwide in the bill for all U.S. Army Corps of Engineers civilian works projects.
When Biden made that announcement, Republicans in Florida’s congressional delegation criticized the lack of money for the southern reservoir. Those Republicans also had voted against the bill, so their hypocrisy was evident.
But environmental groups also expressed concern. As we editorialized, however, the omission may have stemmed from the Corps of Engineers’ rigid rules on when projects can receive money.
That was the case. Five months later — thanks in large part to work by the office of U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston — conditions have changed.
Florida and the federal government are splitting the roughly $2 billion cost of the reservoir. The state is providing the land, and the Corps of Engineers is building the project.
Three contracts are part of that project. Two are in the construction or planning phase. The third, and largest, is to build the walls of the reservoir that will hold enough water to flood 240,000 football fields to a depth of one foot.
The Biden administration took that $265 million for the reservoir from the $350 million that Congress approved for Everglades restoration in this year’s budget. Biden is seeking another $407 million in his 2022-23 budget. Because that infrastructure bill money moved up the timetable for many other Everglades restoration projects, the contract for that “embankment” contract now could go out.
Construction could begin next year. The estimated completion date is 2029. We’re told Biden’s action moved up that date by two years.
In a statement to the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board, Wasserman Schultz said, “The significance of President Biden’s move to fast-track the reservoir funding cannot be understated. It amplifies the overwhelming commitment he’s already made to the River of Grass, and it removes any budgetary or bureaucratic uncertainty as to whether the linchpin of our restoration efforts will advance.
“Undoubtedly, the muscular efforts of advocates aided this effort. But unlike the responses I received on this same issue from the previous administration, President Biden’s timely push to expedite this critical reservoir project emphatically shows that the reservoir is a top restoration priority.”
Rarely in Florida these days can we say that the people won. On the Everglades, this year, they did.
Biden and DeSantis almost certainly will not congratulate each other for all they have done for the Everglades. But they should.