WASHINGTON D.C. — Impassioned pleas from the representatives of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes at the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force may have saved the Western Everglades Restoration Project (WERP), or at least delayed its demise.
At the Oct. 29 task force meeting in the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Yates Auditorium, Col. Andrew Kelly of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initially told the task force he planned to initiate the process to terminate the WERP study.
“There is no doubt of the importance of this project and the effect on the western basin,” said the colonel. The typical study process takes three years, but due to the complexity of the issues in this basin, he said they started with a four-year study time line.
He said during the study, they tried “to figure out how to deliver this equitably across the board so that all of the stakeholders are listened to and the needs are met.”
Projected cost for WERP is about a billion dollars, he added.
“We know this project by intent increases hydroperiods,” he said. “We know to some degree how property will be impacted. We know there is an impact and that is a contentious issue.
“The location of the stormwater treatment areas (STAs) is contentious,” he said. Other issues include the water quality and the level of treatment.
“At this point I think there are too many red lines,” he said. “I am initiating the process for a study termination.”
Truman “Gene” Duncan, water resources director for the Miccosukee Tribe, said the Miccosukee Tribe supports WERP.
“We are very disappointed that the Corps of Engineers is going to give up,” he said. “WERP is critical to fixing the Everglades.”
He said both the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes have camps inside the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Federal law guaranteed the tribes could stay inside the preserve and continue their usual and customary use and occupancy of federal lands within the preserve, he continued.
He said most of the camps near the western portion of Tamiami Trail are Indian camps. “Camp members inside the preserve know they don’t have flood protection,” he said. “They are willing to raise their camps.”
Mr. Duncan said the Central and South Florida Project for Flood Control changed the nutrient load in the water that flows into the Western Everglades.
“We’re talking about a federal flood control structure that routes water at over 200 parts per billion (phosphorus) straight into the Everglades,” he said. (By comparison, water is cleaned to no more than 10 ppb phosphorus before it flows into the Central Everglades.)
WERP was supposed to address western basin, he said. “This is critical if we are ever going to fix the Everglades. They’re doing a wonderful job on one side and ignoring the other.”
Patty Power, representing the Seminole Tribe of Florida, said WERP was part of the original Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
She said flood control projects have stopped the flow of water to parts of tribal land.
“It’s a CERP project,” she said. “You don’t do a CERP project without a lot of challenges and issues. We were shocked to hear this project was being delayed.
“We acknowledge that you see a constraint on SMART planning,” she said. (The corps uses a process for conducting civil works feasibility studies known as SMART — Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Risk Informed, Timely.)
“I don’t think we can give up because of a SMART planning constraint,” she said.
Ms. Power said a lot of WERP discussion was misinterpreted.
“The tribe supports STAs,” she said. “I urge the corps to keep going on this project. I get that the corps wants to keep things moving, but this doesn’t make sense. I encourage the corps to not terminate this project.”
“I live in the Big Cypress Preserve,” said Ron Bergeron, a member of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board.
“The quality of water coming into the preserve at 200 ppb is extremely upsetting,” he said.
He said it is important the culture, the roots and the identity of the Seminole Tribe, the Miccosukee Tribe and even the Gladesmen culture not be impacted by that project. He said Big Cypress Preserve is about half wetlands and half uplands. He said flooding the uplands would destroy the ecology. The uplands support a lot of wildlife, including panthers and bears.
The task force recommended the corps continue to work on WERP.
“I am hearing a level of consensus that perhaps I didn’t hear before,” said Col. Kelly. “We can at least take a look at what that means.
“We are at the table,” he said. “We are fully committed to dealing with the issues. It’s just a matter of how to get it across the finish line.”