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Report: As Everglades work bogs down, costs rise, conditions worsen

Eight years after it was launched, the $10-billion Everglades restoration program is "making only scant progress toward achieving its goals" because it's bogged down in red tape, according to a report released Monday by an arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

The longer the project remains stalled, the higher its cost will rise — even as the River of Grass that it's supposed to rescue declines, the report from the National Research Council says.

"If we don't do something soon, we're going to lose this really precious resource," said William Graf, a University of South Carolina professor who chaired the group that wrote the report.

Although the committee of scientific experts commended Florida's proposed purchase of U.S. Sugar's 187,000 acres, its report says no one knows how that will affect restoration. It notes that any benefits the sugar buyout produces may not be seen for a decade or longer.

Some critics of the buyout, which could cost up to $1.75-billion, have questioned whether spending so much state money on one acquisition would wind up stalling the Everglades restoration even more.

The delay is jeopardizing public support for the restoration project and frustrating the people working on it, the report says. For the state and federal employees who have been toiling on this project for so long, the report says, "it appears that planning rather than doing, reporting rather than constructing, and administering rather than restoring are consuming their talents and time."

That's not how it was supposed to be. When Congress and the Legislature approved the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan — CERP, for short — in 2000, everyone envisioned it as a sweeping and ambitious effort to repair the damage done by the complex system of canals, levees and pumps built between the 1940s and 1960s to drain South Florida for settlement.

The plan, the largest ecosystem restoration project in history, calls for removing some levees and canals, turning some farms and limestone quarries into big reservoirs and raising the Tamiami Trail to allow the water to flow naturally beneath it.

All the engineering and construction work is supposed to restore the River of Grass to a semblance of its former glory as well as provide enough drinking water for South Florida's population to double.

The two agencies that drained the Everglades, the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, are in charge of restoring it, splitting the cost 50-50, with the National Research Council checking on their progress every two years.

The corps originally told Congress that its projected cost of $7.8-billion was a conservative estimate that was sure to drop. Instead, the cost has climbed higher.

It is now pegged at $10-billion, the Government Accountability Office said in a critical report last year, with construction costs expected to continue rising.

Meanwhile, not one of the more than 60 components has been completed, the report states.

Many are so far behind now that they are scheduled to start after the date when they were originally supposed to be finished, it says.

The delays are in part due to the complex process of planning and approving each individual project, instead of grouping several together, the report says. That, combined with the failure of Congress to come up with the federal share of funding, has bogged down CERP.

Because of the federal foot-dragging, the state has spent more than $1.5-billion acquiring land for CERP and launched some construction projects. But the GAO warned last year that the state's focus has been on supplementing South Florida's water supply, not repairing the natural system.

To turn things around, the report says, state and federal officials should focus on pushing ahead with the elements of CERP that will do the most toward restoring the River of Grass — not helping further develop South Florida. And it recommends setting up a new federal funding process for the Everglades that will guarantee that projects will get the money they need every year.

To continue with the way things are now is to risk losing public support for CERP, followed by the loss of the Everglades and its wildlife, the report says.

Stu Appelbaum, who heads the Everglades restoration program for the corps, said he agreed with the report's criticisms, and in fact the corps is already working on restructuring its decisionmaking process to speed things up.

"We certainly agree we'd like to see it going faster," said Terence "Rock" Salt of the Interior Department, which oversees Everglades National Park.

State officials also agreed that "restoration progress is hampered by limited federal funding and a complex and lengthy federal planning process," according to a letter sent to Graf by Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole and water district executive director Carol Wehle.

Report: As Everglades work bogs down, costs rise, conditions worsen 09/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 29, 2008 11:40pm]
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