A delegation of 200 Floridians descended upon the nation’s capital last week for the 25th annual America’s Everglades Summit. Their targeted mission was to rally support for federal authorization and funding of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir.
“It definitely helped the case. No doubt about it. It was good exposure to people who needed to understand why it’s so important,” said Chauncey Goss, a Sanibel resident and city council member who helped educate staff members in U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s office.
“We talked to the members of the Speaker’s staff who handle water issues – they have a lot on their plate. They knew where Lake Okeechobee is, but that was it,” he added. “Now, when we have to reach out they’ll know what we’re talking about.”
As a crucial step in decreasing harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee into South Florida’s estuaries, the reservoir is part of a larger plan to restore natural flows to the Everglades and Florida Bay. The plan, which already received full state support, was submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) at the end of March. The Corps has until Sept. 26 to submit it to Congress for authorization.
“We just want the federal component to kick in and do what we ask of them, which is to fund their side of it. The state has shown themselves to be ready to stroke the pen and sign the deal and provide the money,” said Scott Deal, founder and owner of Maverick Boat Group. “We just need the federal government to come through on their end and push this through sooner not later and not let this become one of those interminable boondoggles where there’s action but not any movement towards completion.”
The delegation included members of regional, state and local environmental groups as well as business owners and members of the Florida legislature. Organized by the Everglades Foundation, the summit devoted April 24 to bold discussion by speakers and panelists about why restoration of the natural flow of water south to the Everglades is so crucial. On the following day, energized delegation members made personal visits to legislators and other policy makers on Capitol Hill to get support for the reservoir.
“This is a long-term effort and that requires two things – diligent oversight and unwavering support,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, (D-FL). “It is now or never. We need more storage and treatment so that the Corps doesn’t have to send billions of gallons of the pollutant-laden water into the fragile estuaries.”
Alterations of the natural flow of water into the “river of grass” go back generations. An overall Central Everglades Restoration Plan was authorized in 2000. It included 68 projects that combined are intended to restore the natural flow. So far, only eight of those projects are underway.
Equipped with a focused and unified message, the delegates set out on Capitol Hill to ramp up the volume on their cause.
“Around here, the squeakiest wheel gets the most grease. So, the more united we are, the clearer our message and the more contacts we have with influencers…the better we’re going to do,” said U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL).
As part of his effort to gain support of other members of the U.S. Congress, Rooney brought other legislators down to tour the Everglades over the past year.
“I think that has translated into some of these unexpected comments on how important this is,” said Rae Ann Wessel, natural resources policy director for the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation (SCCF). “The effort of so many has broadened the understanding by non-Florida elected officials to the importance of Everglades restoration and I feel like they understand what we’re asking.”
Aside from authorization through the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) bill, the $16.4 billion reservoir project also requires a 50/50 state/federal match in annual funding.
“It’s indispensable. There’s not going to be a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee if the federal government doesn’t pay for half of it,” said Sen. Joe Negron, (R-FL).