WEST PALM BEACH — Despite dire warnings from environmentalists that Everglades restoration is doomed if drastic cuts to the state budget are approved, federal agencies say they have the money to keep the programs going and are ready to step up and fulfill their commitment to share the costs.
"The fact that they don't have the financial wherewithal right now, does that mean we stop dead? No, not at all," said Stu Appelbaum, deputy district engineer for Everglades restoration at the Army Corps of Engineers.
This year's federal commitment to restoration construction programs is $180 million, Appelbaum said. Next year's federal budget proposal is $163 million.
Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott has proposed a 66 percent cut in Everglades restoration spending, from $50 million this year to $17 million. House and Senate proposals each stand at about $19 million.
Scott also has proposed cutting by 25 percent the property tax collection rate of the South Florida Water Management District, the state sponsor of the program. During the restoration's peak years, the state allocated as much as $100 million for the project.
"If the governor's budget goes through, it will derail Everglades restoration," said Eric Draper, the executive director of Audubon of Florida. "It will stop it in its tracks. It will take away the money needed to build projects."
In 2000, when then-Gov. Jeb Bush vowed to restore the Everglades, Florida entered into a 50-50 cost-sharing agreement with the federal government. The district has spent more money than the corps because the tasks assigned to the district — such as land acquisition — must be completed before the corps can begin its work, Appelbaum said.
That has left the district with credits, meaning the "federal government can move forward and we can put our money against the credits they've generated," Appelbaum said. "They've done the yeoman's work."
In the past two years, the district has broken ground on six key projects, all fully funded. Still, the cuts proposed in the governor's budget plan would cause serious delays in programs. The most drastic options being considered by the district to meet the governor's demand include "recasting" or even "de-authorizing" the entire restoration project.
Complicating such options for the district are court-ordered mandates stemming from lawsuits over Everglades restoration. In 1992, the state entered into a consent decree to settle one lawsuit, which obligates the state to build stormwater treatment areas and reduce phosphorus levels in polluted water headed for the Everglades. The case is ongoing because phosphorus levels still remain over limits set in the consent decree.
"The signals I'm getting from everybody are that they are trying to keep the program moving forward," said Shannon Estenoz, director of Everglades Restoration Initiatives at the Interior Department and a former district board member. "These are tough times."