You cannot overestimate the value of Everglades National Park. Unlike other parks that were created for their scenery, Everglades was established to preserve the 1,542,526-acre ecosystem as a wildlife habitat, with surface water as its most important resource and lifeline.
Decades before the park was established in 1947, those trying to protect this unique habitat had to cope with natural forces and fight human degradation and politics. That fight continues, led today by the Everglades Coalition, an alliance of 57 local, state and national conservation and environmental organizations.
More than 300 activists, politicians, and federal and state agency officials attended the coalition's 28th annual conference this month in Coral Gables. The three-day meeting reaffirmed the coalition's mission to restore what is known as the Greater Everglades Ecosystem, the vast area from the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes into Lake Okeechobee, through Everglades National Park out to Florida Bay and the Keys.
Everglades habitat restoration projects, the largest in the world, have been faring well during the last four years, with several dedications and groundbreakings. On Jan. 11, for example, a ribbon cutting was held at a facility in south Miami-Dade that will pump needed freshwater into Everglades National Park and into a troubled part of Florida Bay.
More good news is that a ribbon cutting will take place next month at a 1-mile bridge along Tamiami Trail. This popular road has blocked water flow for generations.
Progress has been possible because the Obama administration reinvigorated the Everglades' restoration with $1.5 billion. One clear result of this infusion of money is that polluted water is being cleaned up. This newly clean water directly benefits South Florida homes and businesses.
But coalition members fear that congressional partisanship may stall progress.
"We can't let politics stand in the way of Everglades restoration," said Dawn Shirreffs, co-chair of Everglades Restoration and the Everglades program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. "There are key issues that Congress is going to have to address in 2013. If we don't, we could really hurt restoration. We need bipartisan effort so that we can break ground on other projects.
"Right now, every project that is authorized is under construction. We understand that money is tight. But at the same time, conditions continue to decline. If we pull back on funding, we increase the cost of restoration. You'd have more delay, construction costs will increase, and you wouldn't be able to take advantage of some of the great progress we've had during the last couple of years."
Many important projects are authorized through spending bills called Water Resources Development Acts. These bills used to be voted on every two years. Not anymore. A divided Congress has not voted on a bill since 2007, slowing restoration momentum and threatening entire projects.
And there are vital economic reasons why Congress needs to pass the 2013 water bill.
In a study for the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, Mather Economics, a business consultant specializing in applied economics, found that Everglades restoration projects provide many jobs and numerous economic benefits to Florida and the nation. For every dollar invested in Everglades restoration, four are returned to the economy. If Congress approves future water bills, Mather estimates that more than 400,000 jobs will be created by Everglades restoration over time.
According to the National Park Service, Everglades National Park created more than 2,000 jobs in 2010 and generated more than $140 million in tourist spending.
If Congress fails to pass this year's water bill, Everglades wetlands will continue to be degraded by commercial, residential and agricultural development. Vital water will continue to be drained and channeled, the entire landscape will continue to be altered, and thousands of jobs will be lost.
If nothing else, the politicians in Washington need to remember that Everglades projects provide clean drinking water for more than 7 million Floridians. This fact alone is reason to set politics aside.