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It's been more than seven years since the federal government said it would join Florida in what would be the largest effort ever to restore an entire ecosystem. It's the Florida Everglades.
Well, since then the state has spent billions of dollars on restoration. But NPR's Greg Allen reports the federal portion of that project has stalled.
GREG ALLEN: Sara Fain remembers the enthusiasm in 2000, the day president Clinton signed the comprehensive Everglades restoration plan. Fain is with the National Parks Conservation Association. She recalls it was a project hailed by elected officials, environmentalists and business interests, a $7.8 billion plan that would preserve habitat, improve water quality and restore much of the natural flow in the Everglades.
Ms. SARA FAIN (Everglades Restoration Program Manager): And everyone was holding hands - the federal government, the State of Florida. We waited seven years to get the Water Resources Development Act. We waited seven years to get a water bill that authorized some projects. Now we're just waiting to get the money for those. So we're behind - we're way behind where we're supposed to be.
ALLEN: This year, Congress finally passed its first water projects bill in seven years - over President Bush's veto. That bill at long last authorizes nearly $2 billion in federal funds for two projects that are part of the Everglades restoration plan. But it's still likely to be another year or two before those funds are released. And meanwhile, the costs of restoration continue to rise. The Army Corps of Engineers says its original $8 billion price tag has now risen to more than $10 billion.
Earlier this year, a report by the Government Accountability Office found that six years after their scheduled start dates, none of the federal projects considered most important to the Everglades has yet begun.
Stuart Applebaum says the Corps is now looking at its list of 60-some Everglades projects to see which it can get off the ground quickly, that might have an appreciable impact on the ecosystem's restoration, and which might quiet some of the criticism.
Mr. STUART APPLEBAUM (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers): I mean, I can understand people's frustrations in a long-term endeavor. You get highs and lows along the way. The main thing is maintain the focus and keep moving ahead.
ALLEN: Even critics concede that it's the Bush administration and Congress, not the Army Corps of Engineers, that's held up the funds critical to Everglades restoration. But there's an irony lost on few people in Florida: The Corps is being asked to oversee an effort to undo decades of damage to the Everglades - 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. The Corps is eager to show it's up to the job and likes to show off one of its Florida success stories.
Just north of Lake Okeechobee, this is where the Everglades begins. The Kissimmee River once meandered slowly through Central Florida, providing much of the water vital to Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades. But about 50 years ago, the Corps began working to tame the Kissimmee - installing locks, making it deeper and straighter, turning a river into a canal.
(Soundbite of boat engine)
Mr. CHUCK WOBURN (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers): There's the town that we dug into safety. It's about 35-foot-deep, about 400-foot-wide.
ALEN: I'm on a boat with Chuck Woburn, an engineer with the Corps who spent the last several years working to return the Kissimmee to its natural state. So far, about 10 miles of the river have been restored. The old channel has been filled in and the river is once again flowing along its historic path.
Mr. WOBURN: So we came in and helped it out and cleaned out the vegetation and dredged it out. But as you can see, it's a beautiful with nice sandbars, nice natural vegetation. You can't tell that it was worked on.
ALLEN: The goal here is to improve the water quality of the Kissimmee and to restore the wetland's habitat. David Colangelo with the South Florida Water Management District says where the old river has been restored, the wetlands are back as well.
Mr. DAVID COLANGELO (South Florida Water Management District): So when you get high flows of water, you get water coming out of the channel banks and out onto the flood plain that's, you know, up to three miles wide in some places - helps to restore the marsh that used to be here.
ALLEN: Next year, the Corps hopes to begin work on another important Florida project. It's a project that will make changes to Tamiami Trail, a historic road that runs through the heart of the Everglades. The road has long been recognized as a problem - a barrier that prevents freshwater from flowing south. Environmental groups want the Corps to raze a two-mile-long section of the trail. The Corps is considering a cheaper alternative.
Sara Fain of the National Parks Conservation Association says this project will show how serious the Corps is about restoring the Everglades.
Ms. FAIN: It's going to cost a lot of money. There's some people who don't like the idea of doing that. But if we're going to restore the Everglades, this is the hard decision we need to make.
ALLEN: Even before construction starts, the Tamiami Trail project also demonstrates something else - the slow pace of federal budgeting and big Corps projects. It's a project that was authorized back in 1989 - 11 years before Congress took up its comprehensive plan to restore the Everglades
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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