MIAMI — Gov. Ron DeSantis stood at a podium in the Everglades on Tuesday, his back to an excavator that scraped up mounds of the roadbed that, for the last 90 years, was the Old Tamiami Trail.
He was visiting to highlight the project but also to announce the appointment of his newest Chief Science Officer, Mark Rains, the director of the University of South Florida’s School of Geosciences.
Rains, also a professor of geology, has a master’s degree in ecology and doctorate in hydrogeology from the University of California, Davis. According to the University of South Florida, Rains’ research is focused on “hydrological connectivity, the role that hydrological connectivity plays in governing ecosystem structure and function, and the role that science plays in informing water-related law, policy, and decision-making.”
DeSantis’ first appointee to the newly created role, marine scientist Thomas Frazer, quietly left the position earlier this month.
DeSantis dropped into South Florida to commemorate the final phase of the Old Tamiami Trail project, which involves getting rid of over five miles of the roadway — which acts as a dam — to better allow water to flow south through Florida’s famous “river of grass” and minimize harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee.
“We obviously had a bold vision,” he said. “We are ahead of schedule on some of these projects.”
The project is south of U.S. 41 between the L-67 Extension Canal and Shark Valley Loop Road, and is expected to be complete by January 2022. Noah Valenstein, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, said Tuesday that more than 200 billion gallons of water will be able to move south when the project is completed. It’s a joint undertaking by DEP, the state’s Department of Transportation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Everglades National Park and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
DeSantis said his prioritization of Everglades projects has been recognized by both the Legislature and the federal government, noting the level of federal funding related projects received during the Donald Trump administration.
“We set the standard very high, and we are meeting it,” he said, noting that budget negotiations are still ongoing in the Legislature this year. “We are not that far away and I think we are going to end up with successes in this budget.”
Roadway disrupted southerly flow of water
Old Tamiami Trail was built across the Everglades to connect Tampa and Miami in the early 1900s and disrupted the natural flow of water south through the Everglades. At the time the road was touted as a triumph of modern engineering. Cutting through the thick brush of the Everglades took 2.6 million sticks of dynamite and 13 years.
The removal of the Old Tamiami Trail roadbed is just one part of the larger Central Everglades Planning Project, which has a goal of delivering additional freshwater from Lake Okeechobee south to Water Conservation Area 3 in western Broward and Miami-Dade counties, Everglades National Park and the Florida Bay. Ever since the road was built, the natural flow of water into the southern Everglades has been obstructed, leading to imbalances as the seagrass dies off. Allowing more water to flow south would not only help the health of the national park and the bay, but help in the north, where excess water flowing into Lake Okeechobee has forced discharges of polluted water that’s been blamed for algae blooms into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.
Under an initial Senate budget proposal, DeSantis would get more than he requested for Everglades restoration and water projects in the coming year. The Senate Agriculture, Environment and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee last week rolled out a $6.1 billion spending plan that includes $786 million for Everglades restoration and water projects, which would be $161 million more than DeSantis requested.
“We are doing a lot more than many folks thought we could do. The momentum is strong in the Legislature and throughout the public, so this is really important,” he said. “There’s a lot of reason for optimism.”
Everglades Foundation encouraged
In a statement Friday, Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg wrote that the proposed budgets “show that lawmakers understand how important continued funding is for Everglades restoration and for our state.”
DeSantis said while the Trump administration was supportive of funding Everglades projects, the Biden administration “talks about a lot of money for a lot of other stuff.” He noted, for example, a 2019 federal allocation that fully funded the raising of a 6.5-mile stretch of the Tamiami Trail.
“I would assume [President Biden] would want to keep the progress going,” DeSantis said, noting that he had not spoken to anyone in the Biden administration on the issue. “What I would always tell the president, when I was trying to get Trump to support this, is we are not asking you to support this yourself. We have skin in the game and we are putting money in.”
However, not all groups support the budget allocations or DeSantis’ priorities when it comes to the Everglades. The Sierra Club, for example, supports the funds allocated to the Tamiami Trail projects but urges the governor to also support the purchase of conservation land that could allow for restored wetlands and a shallow reservoir to help move water south.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report
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