Restoration of the Florida Everglades

Restoration of the Florida Everglades

The Florida Everglades are not only an environmental wonder, but provide essential “plumbing” to move water south in the state, recharging the Biscayne Aquifer and ultimately supplying necessary freshwater to Florida Bay. However, the flow and structure of the Everglades has been substantially altered for over 100 years. The restoration of this historic flow is essential to maintain ecological balance in South Florida estuaries and Florida Bay, which are vital to the health of our fisheries, habitat and water quality. The sportfishing industry relies on clean waters and sustainable fisheries for its continued success. The American Sportfishing Association supports efforts to restore the Everglades’ historic southerly flow of water, with an emphasis on those projects that will have the greatest and most immediate impact on the system.

Florida is the “Fishing Capital of the World.” Sportfishing contributes $8.7 billion per year to the state’s economy and supports over 80,000 jobs, making the state an important focus of the industry. Continued industry success in Florida depends on clean waters, sustainable fisheries, and access to both. Record rainfall amounts in January 2016 in south Florida resulted in heavy releases by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers to relieve high water levels that could have caused the failure of the Herbert Hoover Dike, which surrounds Lake Okeechobee. The substantial freshwater inflows into the Indian River Lagoon and Charlotte Harbor area are causing extensive habitat and fisheries damage. In addition, large salinity fluctuations due to inconsistent water deliveries to the south are resulting in large-scale seagrass die-off in Florida Bay threatening these vital nursery resources. These emergency situations have highlighted the need to expedite Everglades’ restoration projects that will restore the natural southward flow of freshwater to Florida Bay and reduce the need for substantial discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the east and west.

Background

Drainage of South Florida “swampland” began in the late 1800s, but significant projects to divert water and dry the land were not begun in earnest until the devastating hurricanes of the late 1920s that caused massive flooding and loss of lives, resulting in the construction of the 170 mile Herbert Hoover Dike (Dike) along Lake Okeechobee (Lake) in the 1930s. In 1948, Congress authorized the Central and Southern Florida (C&SF) Project for “flood control, water level control, water conservation, prevention of salt water intrusion, and preservation of fish and wildlife.” This project resulted in extensive water control structures (canals, water storage, levees, pumps, etc.) to manage and regulate water in central and south Florida. Significant environmental impacts in the 1980s culminated in a re-evaluation of the C&SF by the USACOE, resulting in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) authorized by the Water Resources Development Act of 2000. The goal of CERP is to restore the historic southerly water flow patterns to the Everglades by addressing the quantity, quality, timing, and distribution of water through the South Florida system. CERP established a 50-50 cost share of $9.5 billion between the state and federal government for more than 60 projects over a 30 year period.

The Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) evolved to expedite a series of highly beneficial CERP elements for completion. Currently, those projects have been identified and are awaiting Congressional authorization and appropriation. Additional beneficial restoration strategies have also been identified to improve upon the original CERP plan, including:

  • Water storage north and south of the Lake – watershed storage on the north side of the Lake will allow for more flexibility in maintaining safe water levels in the Lake, significantly reducing the need for releases to the east and west. In addition, this storage will also provide an ecological benefit by treating and filtering water before it enters the Lake. Storage south of the Lake in the Everglades Agricultural Area will benefit water flow through Everglades National Park to Florida Bay.
  • Dike repairs – while Dike repairs are not necessary to restore southerly water flow, they will allow for improved control of Lake water levels and reduce the need for emergency, high-volume east-west releases.
  • Delivery of water to Florida and Biscayne bays – projects that will diffuse and spread water over larger areas on the eastern side of the Everglades, mimicking historic water flow patterns, will improve freshwater flows to Florida Bay.

Position

To achieve maximum benefit and provide urgent relief to the Everglades system and stop harmful discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, ASA strongly supports Everglades’ restoration and the southerly flow of water from central Florida through to Florida Bay. ASA advocates the immediate authorization and funding of CEPP projects, synchronized and expedited timeframes on storage elements north and south of the Lake and Florida and Biscayne Bay projects. ASA supports accelerating the entire restoration and recovery of the Everglades. ASA supports acquisition of land in the Everglades Agricultural Area and Federal (such as H.R. 4793) and State of Florida legislation to provide resources. In addition, the industry supports temporary water solutions such as emergency diversion of water flows to the south and temporary storage solutions that would decrease the need for releases from Lake to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

Water quality continues to dominate Florida headlines. Long term solutions at the federal level include timely authorization of Everglades restoration projects contained in this year’s Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) and the acceleration of planning and construction timeframes. After passing the Legacy Florida Act that will provide a minimum of $200 million annually for Everglades’ restoration, the state will address the issue again during its next legislative session to prioritize projects that would address the discharges from the lake. An algal bloom that began in Lake Okeechobee has spread to the St. Lucie River and associated estuaries as a result of continued discharges by the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps has continued to lower water levels in the lake in advance of the wet season. In the short term, this latest development has prompted Governor Scott to declare a state of emergency for the affected South Florida counties. In response to requests by Sens. Rubio and Nelson, the Corps has temporarily decreased discharge volumes.

ASA supports efforts being made on the federal and state levels to address Florida’s water quality issues that can have an impact on fisheries habitat and management. Due to record rainfall, in January the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released water from Lake Okeechobee sending fresh water west and east to coastal areas that were adversely impacted by the influx of water. In February, the Corps of Engineers acting on an emergency request from the Governor’s office, in coordination with other state agencies, allowed the water to move south on its historic path through Everglades National Park into Florida Bay. ASA sees this as a positive step towards correcting the problem and a good example of coming together to conserve natural resources, but much more is needed to address this challenge in the long-term. In early February, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in both the U.S. House and Senate, led by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Reps. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) introduced legislation to expedite all Corps-lead Everglades restoration projects ready to begin in the next five years including increasing water flow south into the Everglades. On April 7, Governor Rick Scott signed Legacy Florida into law. The bill spearheaded by Sen. Joe Negron (R-Fla.) and Reps. Gayle Harrell (R-Fla.) Matt Caldwell (R-Fla.) will provide more than $200 million annually for Everglades’ restoration projects and more than $50 million each year for additional water quality projects. This funding will allow major restoration projects to move forward while awaiting final federal legislation and funding.

Congress has made progress towards passing a WRDA reauthorization bill this year. WRDA is legislation to authorize U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects that focus on environmental, structural and navigational aspects of waterways infrastructure that affects both commerce and communities. To elevate priorities of the sportfishing and conservation in the reauthorization, ASA joined a letter that was sent to the U.S. Senate and House committees of jurisdiction, requesting improvements to existing operations that would be cost-effective, facilitate project delivery, empower state and local governments, and help meet the many needs associated with our waters and waterways. If Congress passes WRDA this year it will put the bill back on its intended two-year authorization schedule. To get funding, Army Corps projects, of which there are many dozen nationwide in various stages of completion vying for limited funds, must be granted money in the annual Energy and Water federal appropriations bill.

On September 15, the Senate nearly unanimously passed S. 2848 – WRDA 2016. The multi-billion dollar legislation provides essential funding for the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP). CEPP is an important step in bringing much-needed relief to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuary systems and will also facilitate the flow and treatment of water south of Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades system. By a 399-25 vote, the House agreed to a WRDA bill on September 28 (H.R. 5303) that includes identical funding levels for CEPP. The Senate and House bills have significant differences that must be reconciled in conference during the 2016 lame duck session.