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Nancy Smith

Everglades Water Flow Plugged up by Bureaucratic Challenges

September 8, 2013 - 6:00pm

All the bridges in Kingdom Come won't make a difference. Until the bureaucratic dysfunction ends -- and don't hold your breath -- there will be no water flowing south through the central Everglades and into thirsty Everglades National Park.

The problem is something called the Modified Water Deliveries Project. You may not have heard of it, but trust me, it's unique among federal Everglades projects -- the most essential factor in restoring the "river of grass" and moving more water south during times of high water.

It's a complicated business.

The Modified Water Deliveries Project steps on toes, wounds egos and when all is said and done will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Wait until you see how many litigators it attracts.

It's this project that will keep the Everglades alive at times like these, when water in the central 'Glades is stranding wildlife, threatening ecology and rising to the highest level on record for this time of year.

It is unique among federal Everglades projects because it is funded entirely by the Department of the Interior, but it must be constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Army Corps. Big problem.

The story of the Everglades is the crowning example of government programs gone awry. Even today. The private sector can only do so much harm to the Everglades -- the need to cover costs reduces the potential for massive mistakes. Even the state is limited in the harm it can cause. But the federal government -- those folks are able to override common sense and cause real environmental havoc.

"I've been around here for 30 years," says Mike Collins, "and for 30 years we've been trying to get water into Everglades National Park. "But the Army Corps doesn't want to do it. No matter how much money we spend or how much sense it makes."

Collins, whoserved on the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District from 1999 to 2010, told Sunshine State News, "We keep drowning marshes and wildlife on the north side of Tamiami Trail while at the same time we're experiencing desert conditions in the National Park on the south side. But every time we try to do something about it, the Corps thwarts us."

The Modified Water Deliveries Project, one of Collins' babies, is among the "somethings." It was authorized in 1989 and more than $500 million has been spent on it, but, of course, it's still not operational.

The latest and most frustrating obstacle is a thing called Contract 8. For the Modified Water Deliveries Project to work, one component of the 8.5-square-mile system must be connected to the C-111 project. The C-111, by the way, is
a $26 million project which began construction in 2010, with the idea that it would pump 290 million gallons of water daily into the eastern edge of the national park.

It is also a standard U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/South Florida Water Management District project with no role for the Department of the Interior. Sounds simple, right? Two agencies get together, come up with a plan to get 'er done.But, no.

Contract 8 may be the final construction element of the C-111 project necessary to make the connection, but the Corps and the District have been hung up in bureaucratic inter-agency wrangling over cost share, land appraisals and other arcane policy and legal conflicts on Contract 8 for years.

It would cost around $20 million -- and the District at one time even offered to pay for it all, with no federal cost share, all to no avail.

Contract 8 is dormant. The Modified Water Deliveries Project cannot -- that's cannot -- be operated. Consequently, water is backing up critically in Water Conservation Area 3-A, to the detriment of the wildlife and habitat there.

The Corps has now finished a new one-mile bridge and, with Gov. Rick Scott's $90 million pledge, will be building even more. Unfortunately, without the Modified Water Deliveries project there will be no new water flow under the bridges into the Everglades. Solving the bureaucratic challenges is proving a lot more difficult than building bridges.

As for the southern "flow way" from Lake Okeechobee -- it's a pipe dream.

Collins says, in reality, any "flow way" would be a system of managed projects and not a natural sheet flow, as described by speakers Aug. 22 at the Senate Select Committee on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin. Those managed projects are estimated to cost at minimum $14 billion to construct and $500 million per year to operate.

And before any such expenditures can be approved, let alone met, there's a little matter of purchasing land left on the table during the aborted U.S. Sugar Corp. deal in 2010 -- untold millions of dollars required there -- and then the state would have to swap it with land belonging to other sugar farmers, because it would have purchased the wrong parcels to complete the flow path.

To that problem, add the cleanliness of the water going into Everglades National Park.Because of a court ruling to protect the Cape Sable sea sparrow -- even with 57,000 acres of treatment areas -- when the water is three times as great as it is normally, there is a distinct possibility the phosphorous level will not fall below the court-required 10 parts per billion. In which case, it would not be allowed into the park.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423.

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