Everglades restoration: South Estates project could be funded next year

Sunday, November 24, 2002

By ERIC STAATS, emstaats@naplesnews.com

An environmental project in rural Collier County could be getting back on track toward becoming one of the first initiatives in the multibillion-dollar restoration of the Florida Everglades.

Environmental advocates hailed the renewed effort and said it could put the focus of Everglades restoration on Collier County.

"This is a huge jump forward," said Mike Bauer, Southwest Florida policy director for Audubon of Florida.

Everglades restoration planners are putting together the revised proposal to re-establish natural water flows through Southern Golden Gate Estates, situated south of the portion of Interstate 75 known as Alligator Alley.

The plan stalled when it was beset by questions about whether it will worsen flooding in the rural Estates neighborhoods north of I-75 and whether it will provide enough environmental benefit.

The questions contributed to delays in asking Congress for money for the project and delayed the project's timetable.

Click on the image above for a full size version of the graphic.

Now a new restoration alternative has emerged, and officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District, partners in the restoration, are looking for ways to speed up preparation of a report to Congress that is a prerequisite to having the money authorized.

A new timetable would make a draft report due by Feb. 1. After a public comment period and further study, a final report would be due to Congress by July 1, a year ahead of the original schedule and in time for Congress to consider authorizing the money next fall.

Audubon of Florida has expressed worry that support for Everglades restoration is waning in Congress amid concerns that the $7.8 billion effort is more of a water supply project for growing cities and farms than an environmental restoration.

Southern Golden Gate Estates is among the projects environmental advocates have tagged as an opportunity to put a restoration plan into practice.

"We're going to make some progress on Everglades restoration and one of the first places showing results is going to be in our own back yard," Bauer said.

The plan would plug canals and tear out roads that were part of grand plans in the 1960s and 1970s to drain thousands of acres in eastern Collier County to make way for the world's largest subdivision.

A state buyout of some 55,000 acres — or about 86 square miles — of Southern Golden Gate Estates is more than 90 percent complete.

Four canals run north-south through Southern Golden Gate Estates, eventually converging near U.S. 41 East in the Faka Union Canal, which dumps huge amounts of freshwater at one point into sensitive estuaries in the Ten Thousand Islands.

Federal engineers put the original restoration plan, hatched in 1985, through computer models, which showed the plan would worsen flooding problems during heavy rains north of I-75.

Engineers revamped the project to include huge pumps on three of the four canals. That revised plan maintained flood protection north of I-75 but increased the project's cost from $15 million to $60 million.

State and federal biologists working on a project team have pushed for more low-tech alternatives that would more closely mimic the natural flow of water across the scarred landscape.

At the same time, property rights advocates worried that new alternatives would back water up north of I-75, worsening flooding problems for people who live there.

So the team of project planners went back to the drawing board. A new plan has emerged that project managers say should please everyone.

"I think we've found the answer, and we're happy about it, and we think the public will be happy about it, too," said John Chaput, project manager for the Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville.

The new alternative would plug three of the four canals, leaving the Faka Union Canal open. The Miller and Merritt canals would be connected to the northern reaches of the Faka Union, south of I-75. Weirs would be installed on the Faka Union canal to control the release of water into the estuaries and instead let it flow over land as it once did.

He said the corps is still finishing its flood control modeling for the new plan, and the latest proposal has yet to be tested for its environmental benefits.

Various alternatives will be included in a draft Project Implementation Report, or PIR, that could be available for public review in February, under the new timetable being pursued by the corps and water district.

Officials are preparing a report to Corps of Engineers District Engineer James May, in Jacksonville, and water district Executive Director Henry Dean, in West Palm Beach, about what it will take to meet the new deadlines.

Janet Starnes, who oversees Everglades restoration projects for the district in Southwest Florida, said she expects a decision in early December.

"It's their guidance (to undertake the new look at priorities), so unless we say it's impossible, I have a strong sense they'll give us the support we need to get the job done," Starnes said.

If the draft PIR is ready by February, the earliest a final document could be submitted to Congress would be July 2003.

That would be in time to meet deadlines for getting authorization to spend the money for Southern Golden Gate Estates through a possible 2003 version of a Water Resources Development Act.

Occupied with the war on terrorism and bogged down in debate over environmental and fiscal reform of the Corps of Engineers, Congress didn't pass such a bill in 2002.

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