Key project in $8B Everglades restoration plan to be completed by January

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A key component of the $8 billion, 40-year Everglades restoration plan, the removal of a five-mile stretch of elevated roadbed, will be completed in January, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Tuesday.

“That will improve the volume of water flowing south through the Everglades and support reducing harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries,” DeSantis said during a news conference near Shark Valley Loop Road in western Miami-Dade County.

Removing the dike-like remnant is projected to increase the flow of freshwater into the Northeast Shark River Slough area of Everglades National Park, and eventually into Florida Bay to the south, by more than 220 billion gallons a year.

The $5.88 million project’s completion will be a signal accomplishment in DeSantis’ $2.5 billion, four-year campaign to boost funding for water quality projects in the Everglades launched two years ago upon assuming office.

In his proposed Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22) budget request, the governor is requesting its third year $625 million allocation, including $473 million for the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) reservoir project, $50 million for springs restoration, $145 million for “targeted” projects and $25 million to combat algal blooms and red tide.

State lawmakers are mulling over committing nearly $790 million for DeSantis’ initiatives, but Senate President Wilton Simpson wants some of that money committed to EAA – a 240,000-acre-feet reservoir south of the lake – diverted to flood control and storage north of Lake Okeechobee.

The Senate Agriculture, Environment & General Government Appropriations Subcommittee last week introduced a $6.1 billion plan that includes $786 million for Everglades restoration and water projects, $161 million more than DeSantis requested.

“We are doing a lot more than many folks thought we could do. The momentum is strong in the Legislature and throughout the public, so this is really important,” DeSantis said. “There’s a lot of reason for optimism.”

Florida’s momentum in boosting state monies under DeSantis to complete the EAA in seven years rather than 10 was pivotal, as was pressure from Florida’s Congressional delegation, in securing Congressional approval in August of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).

The WRDA green-lighted the $1.6 billion EAA reservoir as a component of the 40-year, $8 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) approved by Congress in 2000 and a component of Florida’s Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP).

The 2020 approval allocated $200 million to CERP this fiscal year, marking only the second time in 20 years the federal government anted up its full annual $200 million commitment.

“We continue to make progress. We set a lot of ambitious goals. We’re meeting those goals. We’re exceeding those goals in many respects,” said DeSantis as he stood before an excavator ripping up the roadbed that acted like a dam in impeding sheet flow and containing harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

“We obviously had a bold vision,” he said. “We are ahead of schedule on some of these projects.”

Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Noah Valenstein said once the roadbed is gone, more than 200 billion gallons of water will be able to move south from Lake Okeechobee.

The Old Tamiami Trail was built in the early 1900s to link Tampa and Miami. It took 2.6 million sticks of dynamite and 13 years to complete the road, then hailed as a modern marvel but eclipsed in the 1970s with the completion of I-75.

DeSantis used the occasion to announce the University of South Florida’s School of Geosciences Director Mark Rains would succeed marine scientist Thomas Frazer as the state’s Science Officer. Frazer was the first to serve in the position created under the DeSantis administration.

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