Just when there seemed to be a glimmer of hope for the Everglades, along comes the lumbering U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to muck up the works.
Last week, a review board of the Corps stunned everybody by delaying the approval of the Central Everglades Planning Project, an essential and widely hailed step in saving what remains of the Everglades.
Because of the board’s surprising decision not to act (which, naturally, happened on Earth Day), CEPP could be left out of the public water bill pending in Congress. New federal funding wouldn’t be available for years, a potentially crippling setback for cleanup efforts from the Kissimmee River to the Keys.
At immediate risk are the Indian River Lagoon, the St. Lucie estuary at the mouth of the Atlantic and the Caloosahatchee River emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.
Every rainy season the Corps opens the floodgates from Lake Okeechobee uncorking millions of gallons of water heavily polluted by farms and ranches. The choking torrent eventually reaches both coasts.
The Atlantic side is stricken by massive algae blooms that suffocate oyster beds and sea grass flats, and turn the water slimy hues of green. On the Gulf, the polluted outflow has been linked to toxic red tides that foul the beaches with dead fish and kill manatees.
While the environmental damage is terrible, the economic impact is also grave. Tourism, the recreational marine industry and real-estate sales suffer during the months of heavy discharges from Lake Okeechobee.
CEPP is actually a collection of engineering projects designed to cleanse the polluted water from mid-Florida agricultural areas and send it south to the Everglades, instead of pumping it out toward the estuaries, inland waterways and oceans.
The concept isn’t hotly disputed. Environmentalists support it, and so does Governor Rick Scott. That’s because Big Sugar is on board, too.
Last year, President Obama put CEPP on his “We Can’t Wait” list of urgent public works, but evidently the Army Corps has one, too. It’s called the “We Can’t Get Our Act Together” list.
From one administration to the next, the Corps never changes. One of the most turgid and impenetrable bureaucracies in Washington, on a good day it moves like a turtle on Ambien.
Letters to the Corps leadership urging prompt action on CEPP were sent by Governor Scott, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and several members of Congress. They might as well have been writing to the Tooth Fairy.
The hitch in approving CEPP by the agency’s Civil Works Review Board has been blamed on a “small deviation” between the Corps’ draft of CEPP and that of the South Florida Water Management District, which would pay for half the project.
At issue is the wording about water-quality standards, a subject of contention throughout the long restoration process. The differences between the Corps’ version and the state’s were said to be “minor,” so surely they can be smoothed out after the funding for the project is secured.
A media statement from the Corps described as “extremely well done” plans laid out in the 8,000-page CEPP report, but said “additional time is needed to finalize the document assessment prior to releasing the report for the final 30-day state and agency review.”
The problem is that there’s hardly any time left. However, nobody speaking on behalf of the Corps has displayed much concern about the looming Congressional vote.
Although the Civil Works Review Board said the CEPP might be ready by late June, that might be too late for the House and Senate, which aren’t blameless in the Everglades muddle.
It’s been seven years since Congress passed a water appropriations act, and the fear is that this year’s will be the last for another long stretch.
Eric Bush, a planning and policy chief with the Corps’ Jacksonville district, said the agency has moved with exceptional haste in evaluating the central Everglades plan. A project so complex typically would require half a dozen years or more of study, he added.
Which makes it merely miraculous that the Corps completes any projects at all. Of the postponement in releasing the CEPP, Bush said, “It isn’t a stalling tactic.”
No, it’s worse than that. It’s a killing tactic.
“This delay means Congress will be unable to act on (CEPP) for years,” said Erik Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. “Once again the Corps is bogged down in its own bureaucracy … and determined to follow a trail of red tape that leads to public frustration.”
A blogger who attended the review board meeting wrote in the Palm Beach Post that the panel spent almost two hours discussing the history of the Everglades, rhapsodizing about its status as a national treasure on par with the Grand Canyon.
One by one, Corps officers spoke in committed tones about the importance of saving South Florida’s vast and “slowly dying” watershed.
Then, in a move that may hasten the dying, they decided to go back and dawdle some more over the rescue plan.
(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)
Photo: rickz via Flickr