WEST PALM BEACH — Concerns about the financing for the Everglades Restoration Area (EAA) reservoir were voiced during the May 7 meeting of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. Due to the concerns about COVID-19, the meeting was held online via Zoom.
Howard Gonzales of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District said $235 million in federal funding was allocated for Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects in fiscal year 2020 and there is $250 million in the president’s budget for fiscal 2021. He said contract awards for the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), which is part of CERP, are anticipated in September 2020, and in 2021 and 2022. CEPP focuses restoration on more natural flows into and through the central and southern Everglades by increasing storage, treatment and conveyance south from Lake Okeechobee, he explained.
The EAA reservoir was authorized by Congress in the 2018 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), he continued. The reservoir contracts will be handled by the corps. South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) will build the stormwater treatment area (STA), which will treat water from the reservoir before it is sent south. SFWMD design efforts are ongoing, he added. SFWMD received approval to start work on the 6,500-acre STA in April.
The corps design efforts for the reservoir are ongoing, awaiting construction funding and approval to execute project partnership agreement, he went on. He said he expects a follow-up report on the reservoir to be complete by May 15. The reservoir will have a footprint of 10,500 acres with a storage capacity of 240,000 acre-feet.
Kevin Ruane, mayor of the City of Sanibel, asked about reports that money was being diverted from EAA reservoir to other corps projects, the C-23 and C-24 reservoirs. He said the EAA reservoir funding was designated by Congress.
In a May 6 blog post, SFWMD Governing Board member Jacqui Thurlow-Lippish wrote: “Yesterday, Col. Kelly announced to the Martin County Commission that $130 million has been put toward the C-23/C-24 Reservoir/STA. The C-23/C-24 getting money is a good thing; however, I do not believe it was made clear where that money is coming from. That money is on the books to be re-channeled because of the ‘New Start’ status of the EAA Reservoir. Yes, the money that the EAA Reservoir would have had for 2020, is now going to C-23/24 Reservoir/STA project.”
In the May 7 Zoom meeting, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said “as with all of our projects, there are some bumps in the road we are working to get through.”
“The intent of Congress was very clear in the WRDA,” said U.S. Rep. Brian Mast of Stuart, who participated in the Zoom meeting. He said moving up the timeline for the EAA reservoir construction was a modification, not a new start. He said Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, along with other Florida members of Congress, have been in contact with Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James. “Congress did very specifically write that as a modification and not a new start,” he said.
“This project is a priority for the state of Florida, and a priority for the Trump administration,” said Celeste De Palma of Audubon Florida. She said the EAA reservoir was authorized as a modification to CEPP. “It wasn’t created in a vacuum out of thin air.” She said treating the reservoir as a “new start” project undermines the president’s agenda.