REPAIR Act could help Everglades restoration

A bill filed this week by U.S. Congressman Tom Rooney could help speed funding of Herbert Hoover Dike repairs and Everglades restoration projects.

Congressman Rooney’s Florida Congressional Distinct 17 includes Hardee, Desoto, Highlands, Okeechobee, Glades and Charlotte counties, and  parts of Polk, Manatee, Hillsborough and Lee counties.

On Thursday, Congressman Rooney introduced the Responsible Environmental Preservation and American Infrastructure Restoration Act (The REPAIR Act, H. Res. 313), which would make a limited change to the House rules to allow Congress to direct necessary funding to vetted water resources development projects of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation.

The REPAIR Act updates the definition of a “congressional earmark” to appropriately classify these critical public safety and environmental projects that provide for the management of the storage, release and flow of water from our nation’s rivers, lakes and dams. Since Congress enacted the “earmark moratorium” in 2010, it has disproportionately impacted Corps and reclamation projects simply because they happen to exist in specific states and districts and do not receive their funding through a formula or competitive grants, the Congressman explained.

“The problem with these projects being classified as ‘earmarks’ is that they’re routinely underfunded and the earmark ban prohibits us from making up the difference when these projects are indiscriminately cut by the executive branch,” Congressman Rooney said. “This is especially harmful when additional money is needed to respond to unforeseen weather events like last year’s 100-year rain in Florida or when Congressional authorizations occur after the spring budget cycle.”

According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report, from 2000 (when the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was first approved by Congress) to 2016, only about 16-18 percent of the federal funding has been provided. Meanwhile, the phosphorus load entering Lake Okeechobee has not changed, despite the success of efforts in agricultural areas to reduce phosphorus in the runoff.

In 2000, CERP was proposed as a 30-year project, but progress is continually delayed by the shortfall of federal funding.

Dike at risk

The Corps is 100 percent responsible for funding and maintaining the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee and shoulders 50 percent of the costs of CERP, Congressman Rooney stated. The Corps classifies the dike at its highest risk level, meaning there’s significant potential for a breach that would result in significant loss of life, overwhelming economic damages to the south Florida agricultural industry and catastrophic environmental impacts to the southern Everglades.

“I want to be clear – my idea is not a complete repeal of the earmark ban and I am not advocating for a return to the corrupt practice of earmarking funds for special interests. Frankly, if anyone is padding their pockets and buying votes in Congress, it’s political action committees that maintain their relevancy by perpetuating this idea that earmarks are the root of all evil and dysfunction in Washington,” the Congressman explained. “The greatest impediment to speeding up critical Corps projects in all of our districts is succumbing to the political expediency of blaming our dysfunction on a fictitious boogeyman.”

Funding shortfall

The Consolidated Appropriations bill of 2017 that passed the House on May 3 provides the Obama administration’s request of $49 million for the Dike and $106 million for South Florida ecosystem restoration activities – which is less than half of what’s required to complete these critical projects on schedule.

Because the dike and Everglades restoration projects are considered “earmarks,” only the executive branch controls how much money they can receive each year, not Congress. At the current combined state and federal rate of $183 million per year, it will be another 100 years before CERP is completed. In order to achieve the CERP’s ecosystem restoration goals within 55 years, CERP requires a steady commitment of at least $325 million, according to the Congressman’s office.

Support for bill

In a May 1 letter, Glades County Commissioners supported Representative Rooney’s efforts to lift the moratorium on congressionally-directed authorization.

“Glades County is known for its rural and diverse ecosystems,” wrote Glades County Commission Chair John Ahern. “Water quality is impacted by Corps activities in central Florida and our economy benefits from being able to not only keep the diverse waters clean but to also restore them as best we can to what it was, which is what drew residents and tourists alike to this area.

“With projects that are currently permitted that will have a positive impact on this endeavor, our challenge has been the availability of funding to complete these projects. If our proposed legislation were to pass, it could have a resounding effect on our ability to complete these very projects that could have a significant and immediate impact on the improvement of water quality and quality of life,” Mr. Ahern stated.

Okeechobee County administrator Robbie Chartier said Okeechobee County also supports the Congressman’s efforts. In a May 3 letter, she wrote: “Our local economy depends on the work of the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the Lake Okeechobee dike. The safety of the dike is paramount as well as the quality of water that enters the lake from Central Florida. Billions of dollars have been allocated to manage the water quality entering the lake from Central Florida, and the associated projects must be completed without hesitation and this can only be accomplished by lifting the moratorium.”

Congressman Rooney’s proposal has also garnered support from the Florida Ports Council, the Florida Transportation Builders Association, Charlotte County, Sarasota County, the Northern Everglades Alliance, Dry-Redwater Regional Water Authority, Central Montana Regional Water Authority, the Florida Rural Water Association and the Asphalt Contractors Association of Florida.

“Our 2,000 public water system members appreciate your continued efforts on their behalf to support and promote their mission related to public health and environmental protection in Florida,” stated Gary Williams, Executive Director, Florida Rural Water Association. “The repeal of this earmark moratorium is integral to the nation’s economic development and sustainability,” stated Doug Wheeler, President and CEO Florida Ports Council. “The earmark moratorium presents a challenge for our economy, particularly when we have no recourse to advocate for necessary federal funds for projects,” wrote Mike Adams and David “Lefty Durando,” Co-Chairs of Northern Everglades Alliance.

“Structural and nonstructural solutions are being applied in the Northern Everglades – South of Orlando. This is the heart of Florida’s ranching and farming base and can serve as natural water storage system, where many wetlands can store and treat storm and floodwaters. Conserving ranchlands is an effective way to increase water storage north of Lake Okeechobee, while reducing floods and water releases into  the rivers and coastal estuaries. The annual appropriations process used to give us a chance to secure funding for these authorized projects, but since 2011 this practice has been banned under the earmark moratorium. The earmark moratorium presents a challenge for our economy, particularly when we have no recourse to advocate for necessary federal funds for projects that are endorsed by a range of stakeholders, and that benefit from state and local entities ready to meet their cost-share commitments.”

In a Feb. 18 letter, the entire  Florida Congressional delegation urged President Donald Trump to include projects in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP) in his Fiscal Year 2018 budget. The letter stressed the importance of funding the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) which is part of CERP.

“The Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act of 2016 authorized two CERP projects that now await further action by the Corps and the DOI. These include the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) as well as additional authorizations to complete the Picayune Strand project. These projects are an important step in achieving more optimal water flow and we encourage immediate funding for these projects. The CERP is a multi-year and multi-phase project that competes for funding from Corps projects across the country. The Everglades deserve your attention and support and we ask that you provide the necessary resources to restore the region,” the letter states.

Reach Katrina Elsken at kelsken@newszap.com

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