A standoff between the state and federal government over a new Everglades restoration plan means time could run out on getting Congress to help pay for it.
Environmentalists warn that without an agreement in July to move ahead with the Central Everglades plan, the result could be more years of delays in getting more clean water flowing to Florida's struggling River of Grass.
"The Everglades can't wait, and Congress is not going to," said Dawn Shirreffs, of the National Parks Conservation Association.
It's the potential state share of the more than $1 billion restoration project that has the South Florida Water Management District hesitant to sign onto the plan.
The state has already spent nearly $2 billion on Everglades restoration and has another $880 million Everglades water pollution cleanup plan in the works.
District board members Thursday said they want to commit to the Central Everglades plan, but the cost implications and other concerns must first be addressed.
"We want to know what that means in terms of dollars and cents before we sign off on a check," board member Juan Portuondo said at the board's meeting in Key Biscayne.
The Army Corps of Engineers needs the water management district to provide the local approval necessary to try to get money from Congress to help pay for the Central Everglades plan.
Getting the district's initial endorsement in July, and eventually a final commitment in October, allows the Central Everglades project to stay in the running to be included in a water projects bill being considered in Congress.
Congressional water funding that was supposed to come up every two years has instead turned into a seven-year cycle. That is creating concerns that if the Central Everglades project gets left out of this round, federal help for the Central Everglades project could be left in limbo.
The effort to get more clean water to the Everglades would suffer "a huge setback" if the Central Everglades plan gets left out of this round of congressional water funding, said Eric Eikenberg, Everglades Foundation CEO.
"We cannot miss this opportunity," Eikenberg said.
Federal and state disputes over how to pay for restoring the Everglades since 2000 have delayed efforts to build water storage and treatment areas intended to recreate water flows, which were siphoned away through the decades to make room for farming and development.
South Florida's vast system of levees, pumps and canals redirects water that once replenished the Everglades, dumping water out sea for flood control and also using water to irrigate agriculture and restock urban drinking water supplies.
The Central Everglades plan seeks to get more water flowing south toward Everglades National Park by removing portions of levees, filling in sections of canals and boosting pumping capacity.
Cost creates a serious hurdle for the district, which had its budget cut by more than 30 percent in recent years. Also, sending more water south could make it harder for the state's new $880 million Everglades water pollution cleanup effort to succeed in meeting federal water quality standards.
District officials want a commitment that backing an effort to boost Everglades water quantity won't get them in trouble with federal water quality requirements.
After more than a year of not being able to resolve the issues, district board member James Moran questioned how a solution was going to emerge by next month.
"I'm not hearing any proposed solutions," Moran said. "These are monumental problems."
More concrete cost estimates, and more clarity on the water quality implications, are expected in time for the district board to give its initial approval to the Central Everglades plan in July, federal officials said Thursday.
"We are working very closely together to resolve these issues," said Lt. Col. Thomas Greco, the Army Corps of Engineers deputy district commander for South Florida. "This plan is getting us there."
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