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November 1, 2017

SOUTH FLORIDA — Florida Bay dodged much of the damage Hurricane Irma rained down when it swept through the Keys Sept. 10, but the large Everglades estuary continues to be threatened by drought, algal blooms and seagrass die-offs.

However, those who are intimately involved with Everglades restoration, key to the long-term health of Florida Bay, say that a reservoir project designed to store clean, fresh water to eventually be sent south is being fast-tracked by the South Florida Water Management District.

Now, the question is whether or not the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, half of the state-federal partnership that will ultimately determine the fate of Everglades restoration, will be able to keep its end of the deal.

A recent visit to the Keys by U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has given many hope that restoration projects, largely languishing since the adoption of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in 2000, may have the federal support necessary to start breaking ground.

According to Steve Friedman, commodore of the Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association, Zinke is “in the right place” when it comes to restoring the Everglades, though he and other guides, who met with the interior secretary on Oct. 7, have said the interior secretary is not as well-versed on CERP and its relationship to Florida Bay as those who have dealt with the issue for years.

Friedman also says that he hopes Zinke nudges the Trump administration toward focusing its attention on the bay and other Everglades-related issues due to the president’s relationship with the Sunshine State and his affinity for the grandiose, established during his earlier career as a real estate mogul.

“He’s recognizing that we have a president that is very much a big Florida fan; I’m sure that helped his election,” Friedman said. “We also know that he likes to build big things, and this is a big thing that needs to be built.”

Zinke did not touch on many specifics during his visit, but one particular aspect of restoration efforts looks to be closer to getting underway than it has in the past. A reservoir planned for land south of Lake Okeechobee, which would collect fresh water that would otherwise be released from the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, filter it and store it so that it can ultimately make its way to Florida Bay, is gaining momentum fast, according to Celeste De Palma, policy associate for Audubon Florida.

“It’s pretty refreshing to see that the (South Florida Water Management) District is taking such an aggressive position in making sure that we’re moving this project forward,” De Palma said.

That aggressiveness is likely due in large part to the passage of Senate Bill 10 during this year’s legislative session. The bill, guided through the state Legislature by state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, provides for the construction of the long-awaited reservoir.

Elizabeth Jolin, an Islamorada fishing guide and activist who has been involved with Everglades restoration efforts for years, says that SB 10 was an easily understood bill that will be a key part of the restoration process.

“This was coming off of a pretty devastating seagrass die-off in Florida Bay,” Jolin said in reference to a 2015 drought that deprived the bay of crucial fresh water, leading to the loss of a documented 22,000 acres of seagrass meadows. “We could all talk about it fairly fluently. It was very clear to everyone what it was, what it meant not only for Florida Bay, but also the other estuaries in the middle of the state.”

De Palma believes that Hurricane Irma was a key motivating factor that has spurred immediate action on the construction of the reservoir.

“The idea is to try and fast track this project because it really shows that we need to accelerate the rate at which we’re doing Everglades restoration,” she said. “The hurricane compelled everybody to come together and look at ways that we can be better prepared for the next storm. The obvious answer to that is advancing projects that give us more storage so that we can have more flexibility to move water around the system.”

SFWMD is holding several public meetings to present models, share ideas and get feedback from the public. What is not yet known is if the Army Corps of Engineers will be able to secure funding on its end.

That aspect of the project is crucial, because both the state and the federal government need to come up with $800 million each to fund the construction of the reservoir. Randy Smith, SFWMD spokesman, says it’s imperative that all project deadlines and federal requirements be met so the Corps will have its ducks in a row when it makes its funding request to Congress.

He does say that SFWMD and the Corps are “in step” on the project.

“We’re working cooperatively at this point,” Smith said.

Though the Corps will need to make its case to funding, SFWMD seems to be a full go on the project.

“We are putting all our efforts into making this directive from the Legislature a reality and to build this project as quickly as feasible,” said SFWMD Governing Board Chairman Dan O’Keefe in a press release.

However, Jolin warns that the reservoir, while essential to CERP as a whole, doesn’t come close to addressing all of the issues that plague the bay.

“That reservoir is very important to the bigger picture, but just because it’s built doesn’t mean that all of the problems are going to go away.” she said. “This is all about policy and the pressure being put on people to convince them to fund these projects to move restoration forward.”

Though De Palma and others welcome the speed at which the reservoir project is progressing, actual groundbreaking on the reservoir is still years away. However, she says that the acceleration of the planning stage of the reservoir is reason to hope that it will be built in a timeframe that is much faster than previously anticipated.

“The planning process for a CERP project is usually three years,” De Palma said. “They’re trying to compress that planning into 18 months, so that’s already crazy fast.”

One local guide, Xavier Figueredo, who has been heavily involved in Everglades restoration for many years, is less optimistic about the completion of the reservoir despite the passage of SB 10 and the streamlining of the project’s planning.

He suggests that the eventual completion of the reservoir may be too little, too late.

“If they broke ground on that reservoir right now, it’s probably a seven- to 10-year completion date. So we’re still in the same situation,” Figueredo said. “I like to be hopeful, but I’m very concerned.”

He and other Everglades activists have seen a number of CERP projects wallow in bureaucratic red tape since it was passed 17 years ago, though De Palma and others still hold out hope that, this time, a crucial restoration project may finally be getting off the ground.

“This is a great outcome from what was a pretty devastating hurricane. I think it shows that everybody is trying their best to get this project on the road,” De Palma said. “Now that it’s a reality, I see everybody pulling together for the same thing.”

cwickenhofer@keysnews.com

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