Half a century ago, there was a failed effort to build the world’s largest airport on the edge of Everglades National Park in what is now the Big Cypress National Preserve. To put it in perspective, the planned Big Cypress Jetport would have been five times the size of New York’s JFK Airport.
Clearly, things have changed for the better. Instead of laying tarmac over 39 square miles of a one-of-a-kind ecosystem, we are now working to restore the Everglades to its original beauty and function. Pursuing this goal is one of my highest priorities.
Beginning in the latter half of the 19th century, the South Florida landscape was significantly modified to facilitate the development of communities, roads and agricultural lands. Unfortunately, the same canals and flood control infrastructure that have driven South Florida’s development have also threatened a unique matrix of rich ecosystems, including flora and fauna found nowhere else on Earth. Once these ecosystems are restored, they will serve as a major factor in mitigating the region’s water quality issues. With advances in our understanding of, and a renewed appreciation for, our environment, fulfilling our role as stewards by restoring thriving wetlands and shimmering coastal waters is not just an ethical obligation, but a practical one.
Everglades restoration is the single best way to improve Florida’s water quality and environment. Now, the White House has worked with us to achieve exactly that by proposing $250 million in annual funding in its 2021 budget to finance the construction of new Everglades infrastructure as part of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration. The clunky name aside, the restoration encompasses dozens of projects focused on improving water quality and solving the most persistent environmental issues across the region.
As every Floridian knows, the Everglades provides thousands of square miles of natural habitat to Florida’s wildlife, supplies the sole source of drinking water for nearly 40 percent of the state’s residents, and is the lifeblood of the South Florida economy. However, the region frequently suffers from considerable environmental degradation, including poor water quality and frequent, destructive algal blooms that kill native aquatic plants and animals on a massive scale. The environmental, economic, and human health impacts from these events highlight the need for continued investment in conservation and restoration.
The restoration program and associated Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan aims to combat these issues and reinvigorate the Everglades, with specific goals including the enlargement of regional water storage capacity, restoration of natural water flows to Everglades National Park, and a reduction in harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges.
In 2019, the Trump administration originally budgeted $63.3 million for these efforts, continuing a trend of declining and insufficient sums given the project’s considerable scale. Last February, I asked the president for an annual commitment of $200 million from the federal government. Buoyed by similar calls from Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Rick Scott and the state’s congressional delegation, President Donald Trump understood the importance of the effort and joined the fight for annual funding.
And now, this month, Trump added an additional $50 million to his annual budget proposal to fund Everglades restoration. If approved by Congress -- and I will use my position on the Senate Appropriations Committee to make it happen -- this surge in funding will allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to continue building overdue reservoirs and stormwater treatment areas, restore wetland features along Biscayne Bay, and design the next suite of projects in the construction queue.
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Most importantly, it will allow the corps to break ground on the Central Everglades Planning Project, which I have long championed, this year. Once completed, the project will redirect, clean and deliver significant increases in freshwater flows under a newly raised Tamiami Trail into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. It will be the single most impactful effort in our quest to restore the Everglades.
As with any hard fought victory in Washington, there is never time to rest. Work will soon begin on spending bills for 2021, and I will continue to advance my legislation designed to rehabilitate Florida’s extensive network of coral reefs, reduce our vulnerability to harmful algal blooms, and protect our coast from offshore drilling.
None of this will happen overnight, but with our recent progress, we’re finally on a path to completion within our lifetimes, and I will not let us slide back into complacency. The restoration of our Everglades is too important to leave unfinished.
Sen. Marco Rubio is a Republican from Florida.