Thursday, November 22, 2007

Trillions for Endless War Leaves Everglades Restoration High, Dry and Dying


The multibillion-dollar project to restore the Everglades has come to a near standstill, and the government can no longer estimate how much it will cost or how long it will take, the top federal official in charge of construction told The Associated Press.

In part because Congress has failed to come through with the promised money, some tasks have fallen years behind schedule. In the meantime, construction costs are rising, along with the price of the Florida real estate that must be bought up as part of the plan to restore the natural flow of water in the Everglades.

The largest wetlands restoration effort in the world — approved in 2000 and formally known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP — was originally estimated to cost $7.8 billion and take 30 years. By last year, the price tag had been put at $10.5 billion, and experts said it could take 50 years.

Now it's anybody's guess.

"I don't know what the cost of CERP is right now because the cost of land down there has skyrocketed and the cost of construction in South Florida has also gone through the roof," Gary Hardesty, the Everglades restoration chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told the AP.

Because of the uncertainty over federal funding and a lack of scientific data that the projects will actually work, Hardesty said, the Corps is being forced to adopt a slower, more deliberate pace.

The project — signed into law by President Clinton with bipartisan support — called for the construction of reservoirs, back-filling of canals and rerouting of water to rescue the fast-shrinking Everglades and preserve the remarkable variety of plants and wildlife that inhabit it, including egrets, rare orchids, alligators and panthers.

'Price just keeps going up'
Eric Draper, policy director for the conservation group Audubon of Florida, was once optimistic but now isn't so sure.

"The federal government simply isn't in a position now to be able to afford the promises made with Everglades restoration, and the price just keeps going up," Draper said. "The federal government is broke. The state has deep budget shortfalls. Where's the money going to come from?"

The Everglades once covered 4 million acres of swampland but has shrunk to half its size over the past 150 years because of the building of dikes, dams and homes in booming Florida and the effects of the sugar cane fields and other farms on its fringes. The swampland that remains is in ecological distress because of pollution from urban runoff and farm fertilizers.

The 2000 plan made the federal government and Florida 50-50 partners in the project to heal the River of Grass.

To date, the state has committed more than $2 billion and pushed ahead alone with a few projects — including the building of several reservoirs to store water for use during dry spells — in the hope the Corps would catch up.

But in large part because of the cost of the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, Congress has appropriated only several million dollars. And the only work that has been done on any of the Corps' 68 projects has been on paper.

In the meantime, wildlife habitat continues to disappear, and pollution is killing native plants, allowing nonnative species to invade.

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