Budget: Bush budget proposal doesn't include funds for new Everglades projects

Wednesday, February 5, 2003

By JOEL ESKOVITZ, eskovitzj@shns.com

President Bush's proposed budget includes $180 million for the Interior Department and the Army Corps of Engineers to spend on Everglades restoration.

What it doesn't include has environmentalists puzzled.

The Army Corps' budget includes no new construction projects as part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Nor is money set aside for the Interior Department to acquire land as part of the project designed to restore water flow through an 18,000-square-mile area in central and south Florida.

"The original implementation schedule called for a much more significant ramping up than what we're seeing in this budget," said Sean McMahon, National Audubon Society's assistant director for government relations.

The president's $2.23 trillion spending plan for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 would set aside $158 million in the Army Corps of Engineers' budget and $22 million in the Interior Department budget for Everglades restoration.

Congress will use the proposal, released this week, as a blueprint during its spending authorization process.

"The budget contains a flat level of funding for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, when we need to increase our investment as the project moves forward if we are to truly restore America's River of Grass," National Wildlife Federation President Mark Van Putten said.

Shannon Estenoz, head of the World Wildlife Fund's Everglades Program, said the lack of money for land acquisition — compared with $20 million in last year's budget proposal — would slow down the torrid pace the state is working on to gain land essential for planning future projects.

"Acquiring the land is one of the first steps you take," she said. "Land is not getting any cheaper down here."

As for the pilot projects, she couldn't understand the logic of the Corps, which has decided not to begin new projects until it begins to reduce its backlog.

"These pilot projects continue to fall in this no-new-start policy, which is silly," Estenoz said. "Everglades restoration has been going on for years."

McMahon said this would be the fourth straight year no money is included for restoration pilot projects, which would resolve lingering scientific questions about aquifer storage and recovery. About $2.5 million is needed for the projects, he said.

"I'm hopeful that Congress will see the wisdom in funding these projects since they are an integral part" of the restoration plan, McMahon said.

Dennis Duke of the Army Corps' Jacksonville office said the pilot projects affect just a few portions of the restoration plan. Duke said he doesn't believe delaying construction would stall the overall restoration.

The projects would still move forward through planning and design stages, he said.

Also included in the Corps' budget is $14.8 million for its critical projects program, which features eight projects that were authorized in 1996.

In Collier County, that includes the Lake Trafford project, which is focused on restoring the habitat after a massive fish kill in 1996 in the lake in Immokalee.

Duke didn't yet have specific figures on how much money would be spent on the project, but said it will be redesigned.

He hoped the Corps could begin advertising this summer for construction bids.

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