Amid bitter partisan disputes over payroll tax cuts and other budgetary wrangling, the spending bill that Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed contains $142 million for restoring the Everglades and the Kissimmee River.
In a news conference Wednesday U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., credited a rare bipartisan effort to get the funding pushed through, and praised the work of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, in keeping the Everglades funding intact in the House.
Meanwhile Kirk Fordham, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, noted the role played by the ongoing presidential race.
"It doesn't hurt that Florida tends to be a swing state in presidential elections," he said.
He said Florida's congressional delegation has done a good job of convincing their colleagues that restoring the Everglades is crucial for the Florida economy. Without it, South Florida will struggle to find enough water, he pointed out.
Nelson and Fordham also singled out a change in attitude by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who in his first year in office proposed spending only $17 million for the Everglades. The Legislature raised that to nearly $30 million.
Now Scott has requested $40 million for next year, a move that helped persuade Congress that the state is serious about carrying its half of the project.
The bill provides $96.9 million for various Everglades restoration projects and another $45.6 million for restoring the Kissimmee River, which flows into Lake Okeechobee as part of the historic Everglades system.
The bill also includes language authorizing raising another 5.5 miles of the Tamiami Trail, which when it was built in the 1920s effectively dammed the flow of the River of Grass.
Construction crews are now at work raising one mile of the highway, a $95 million project first approved by Congress in 1989 and slated for completion by December 2013. That one mile is not nearly enough to restore the historic flow of the Everglades, so that's why federal officials wanted to raise another 5.5 miles.
The plan authorized by the bill calls for using four different bridges, ranging in length from a third of a mile to 2.6 miles, to be built over four years at an estimated cost of $324 million.
Getting the project authorized "is a pretty significant win, especially when Congress is not authorizing a lot of new projects," Nelson said. However, persuading Congress to come up with the funding for those four bridges "is going to take several years."
All in all, Fordham said, "I think we've turned the corner on Everglades restoration."
Projects that had been in the planning stages for years will now be headed for a ribbon cutting in the next year, he predicted.
However, so much progress provides something of a challenge for Congress next year. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the federal side of the restoration project, is on the verge of finishing up all the Everglades-related projects that Congress has authorized so far. Unless Congress authorizes more, the project will run out of steam again.
The last bill authorizing more Corps work on the Everglades took eight years to pass.
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com