The Everglades restoration project is off track. After eight years of work and $7-billion in taxpayer spending, the effort is strangled by red tape, a shift in the nation's political priorities and concern over rising costs. The project was designed as a partnership between the federal government and the state, but Congress is not providing Washington's share of the cash. Federal agencies also need to show greater urgency and ensure that the state, in looking to accommodate growth, protects the environmental quality of this national treasure.
Restoring the Everglades' natural health while supplying a growing South Florida with the water it needs was always going to be a costly, lengthy balancing act. But a panel of experts reported last week that the project is "making only scant progress toward achieving its goals." The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, in an independent progress report, noted that the focus on planning and bureaucratic protocol have taken the wow factor away from the much-hyped project. That is frustrating the people who work on it and threatening to dampen the popular support it needs to get completed.
The plan seeks to undo the damage done by a system of canals, levees and pumps built between the 1940s and '60s to drain South Florida to accommodate more people and subdivisions. 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 and splitting the costs. But the $8-billion cost estimate has ballooned to at least $10-billion, and delays by Congress and the Bush administration in funding the federal share have shifted more of the costs onto Florida and forced some construction delays. Not one of the 60 initial restoration projects is completed; those that have broken ground are years behind and over budget. Experts worry that the slowdown in the economy and the continuing crisis in the credit markets will only push the Everglades further back on the nation's agenda.
The state and the nation have invested too much to let this project get any further off track. Pushing restoration off will only make it harder and more costly to deal with urban sprawl. The corps is working to streamline its regulations and decisionmaking process, which is essential. But the federal government needs to provide its share of the money in a timely manner. The state and the many public and private players involved need to know Washington is committed. Federal officials also need to quit funding projects in isolation. This restoration plan has many moving parts, and the focus needs to be on restoring the ecosystem, not minimizing the damage here and there.
Having federal officials more actively involved, and looking at the restoration in comprehensive terms, is particularly important now that Florida has proposed spending $1.75-billion to buy 187,000 acres in the Everglades from U.S. Sugar. The impact of that proposal cannot be fully known until officials examine more thoroughly the financing plan and uses for the land. This would be a remarkable financial and ecological commitment to the restoration effort, and the state and federal governments should look at the impacts with a common vision. That will require greater cooperation than we have seen recently and a renewed commitment to restore and sustain the Everglades.