MIAMI — Florida officials are seeking more than $1-billion for Everglades restoration from President-elect Obama's economic stimulus plan, contending they could create hundreds of jobs and start work within 90 days.
Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said Friday they have been talking to officials in the incoming administration about using the stimulus money to get the delayed restoration project back on track.
Crist said he will attend the Jan. 20 inauguration and hopes to talk to Obama about steering federal money to what has been called the biggest ecosystem restoration project in history.
"It's time to start turning some dirt," Nelson told a luncheon gathering of environmental activists, politicians, planners and regulators meeting in Miami.
Meanwhile, Crist's other initiative to revive the Everglades project, the proposed $1.34-billion buyout of U.S. Sugar's 180,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee, has run into potential trouble in Tallahassee. Opponents have hired high-powered lobbyists to try to talk the Legislature into halting the buyout, according to Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida.
"The halls (of Tallahassee) have been tense," agreed state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole. He expressed hope that opposition would die down once state officials can figure out how much of the land they really need and how much they can sell off or swap.
In comments to reporters at the annual conference of the Everglades Coalition on Friday, Crist said "it breaks my heart" that anyone would object to turning sugar land back into something that helps nature. In his speech to the conference he defended the purchase, noting "it's easy to attack things that are rather grand."
While the price tag is "hard for some to stomach, and I understand that," Crist said he sees it as his duty to pursue the purchase.
Crist and Nelson are focused on getting an infusion of federal money for the Everglades project. Nelson said he has already talked to Obama's new environmental adviser, Carol Browner, a Miami native and once the state's top environmental regulator.
The South Florida Water Management District has requested $1.2-billion for the Everglades be made part of the economic stimulus package, which, if passed by Congress, could total $775-billion over two years.
The money would go toward building a pair of reservoirs for holding water that is now flushed out to sea, as well as repairing the crack-prone dike around Lake Okeechobee, said Carol Wehle, executive director of the water district, the state agency in charge of Everglades restoration.
Those projects, if funded, would produce hundreds of new construction jobs in places like Hendry County, she said, and once the money is in hand construction could start in 90 days.
Wehle noted that Obama had emphasized his interest in using the stimulus money to promote alternative energy sources such as solar power and wind power. The Everglades restoration projects don't exactly fit that bill, she conceded.
"They may not be green energy, but they're green projects," she said.