Bureaucracy Floats Through the Everglades

A roseate spoonbill in the Florida Everglades. i i

A roseate spoonbill looks for food in a pond in the Florida Everglades. The Everglades has seen its wading bird population decline drastically since the turn of the century due to drainage of wetlands, alteration of overland water flow and hunting, according to the National Park Service. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Joe Raedle/Getty Images
A roseate spoonbill in the Florida Everglades.

A roseate spoonbill looks for food in a pond in the Florida Everglades. The Everglades has seen its wading bird population decline drastically since the turn of the century due to drainage of wetlands, alteration of overland water flow and hunting, according to the National Park Service.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Seven years ago, the federal government announced plans to help the state of Florida restore the Everglades in what was to be the largest effort ever undertaken to restore an ecosystem in the United States.

Since then, Florida has spent billions on restoration. But for the most part, the federal portion of the project, known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, has yet to get off the ground.

This year, over President Bush's veto, Congress passed its first water projects bill in seven years. That bill authorizes nearly $2 billion in federal funds for two projects in the Everglades — just a small portion of the total plan. Even so, it's likely to be another year or two before the money is released.

It's not just environmental groups that are angry about the delay. The federal government's slow start has pushed the Army Corps of Engineers original price tag of $8 billion up to more than $10 billion. Costs are supposed to be shared 50/50 by the federal government and Florida, which means at least an extra billion for the state — if everyone pays what they promised.

Seven years in, Florida has spent some $3 billion on Everglades restoration, 10 times the amount the feds have put in, according to Ken Ammon of the South Florida Water Management District.

Hard Proof of Inefficiency

Earlier this year, a report by the Government Accountability Office laid out in black and white what was already apparent to many — that six years after their scheduled start dates, none of the federal Everglades projects considered most important had begun.

That report and an earlier study by the National Academy of Sciences have prompted a new approach to Everglades restoration. The Army Corps of Engineers is now looking at its list of 60 Everglades projects to see which it can get off the ground quickly, says Stuart Applebaum, chief of the Corps' Ecosystems Restoration Branch.

"I can understand people's frustrations to a long-term endeavor," he says. "You get highs and lows along the way. The main thing is to maintain the focus and keep moving ahead."

Even critics concede that it's the Bush administration and Congress, not the Corps, that has held up the money critical to Everglades restoration. Herein lies an irony lost on few people in Florida: The Corps is being asked to oversee an effort to undo decades of damage that, in many cases, was caused by earlier Corps projects. Canals that were painstakingly dug will be filled in, wetlands that were drained for homes and agriculture will now be re-flooded.

Fixing a River, Bit by Bit

The Kissimmee River once meandered slowly through central Florida — providing much of the water vital to Lake Okeechobee, where the Everglades begin. About 50 years ago, however, the Corps began working to tame the Kissimmee — installing locks, making it deeper and straighter — turning a river into a canal.

Over the past several years, about 10 miles of the river has been restored, however — a sign of progress amid a mass of bureaucracy.

"We came in and helped it out and cleaned out the vegetation and dredged it out," says Chuck Woburn, an engineer with the Corps, pointing out alligators, ibises and purple gallinules where the river is once again flowing. "As you can see, it's beautiful with nice sandbars, nice natural vegetation."

Taking the Road to Restoration, Again

Next year, the Corps hopes to begin work on another important Florida project — the Tamiami Trail, a historic road that runs through the heart of the Everglades.

The road has long been recognized as a barrier that prevents freshwater from flowing south. Environmental groups want the Corps to raze a two-mile-long section of the trail.

This project will show how serious the Corps is about restoring the Everglades, says Sara Fain of the National Parks Conservation Association.

"It's going to cost a lot of money," she says. "If we're going to restore the Everglades, this is the hard decision we need to make."

It was already made once, almost 20 years ago. In 1989, 11 years before Congress took up the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the project was authorized for the first time.

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