Funding shortfall delays CERP progress; Everglades restoration may take another 50 years

OKEECHOBEE — There’s good news and bad news about the Everglades restoration.

The good news: Some of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects are completed or near completion and are showing some environmental benefits. Water quality in the Everglades continues to improve.

This map shows the progress of Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Projects. Graphic courtesy National Academies Press.

The bad news: The CERP projects are proceeding much slower and cost more than originally anticipated. Funding remains a major issue. Over the past 16 years, only about 16-18 percent of the federal funding for what was originally projected to be a 30-year program has been provided. In addition, the phosphorus load entering Lake Okeechobee has not changed, despite the success of efforts in agricultural areas to reduce phosphorus in the runoff.

Last summer, when freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee contributed to algal blooms on the coast, Florida Governor Rick Scott was quick to blame the Obama Administration for failing to fund CERP, but there’s plenty of blame to go around.

“Progress Toward Restoring the Everglades: The Sixth Biennial Review, 2016,” is a report of The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. This report is the sixth biennial assessment of the CERP, a multibillion-dollar effort between the state of Florida and federal government launched in 2000 to reverse the decline of the Everglades.

“Although the funding outlook has improved over the past two years, the funding pace remains slower and the project costs greater than originally envisioned for the CERP, leading to prospects of program completion well beyond 2060,” the report states.

“Although the outlook for CERP funding has shown modest improvements since the all-time low in 2012, outlays of funds continue to fall short of what is needed to complete the CERP within the next 50 years,” the researchers found.

The report also questions the validity of some parts of the overall restoration plan.

“There has been insufficient attention to refining long-term systemwide goals and objectives and the need to adapt the CERP to radically changing system and planning constraints. It now is known that the natural system was historically much wetter than previously assumed, bringing into question some of the hydrologic goals embedded in the restoration plan,” the report states. “Sea level rise will reduce the footprint of the system, temperature and evaporative water losses are expected to increase, rainfall may become more variable, and more storage would likely be needed to accommodate future changes in the quantity and intensity of runoff.”

The report also notes that other things have changed since the CERP was developed in 2000. Due to concerns about the safety of the Herbert Hoover Dike, and environmental problems for the lake itself if the lake level is kept artificially high for extended periods, the lake schedule has been lowered, which has been a great benefit to the fisheries and ecology of Lake Okeechobee. However, the change in the lake schedule means there is less area in the lake for water storage than originally planned. To maintain the lake at the current schedule, more water storage will have to be found elsewhere in the system.

Even modest changes in the level of Lake Okeechobee can make a big difference in water storage, the researchers found.

“A planning process, with substantial public engagement, would need to evaluate different regulation schedule options and their differential benefits for the lake, the northern estuaries, and the remnant Everglades as well as related economic and water supply impacts,” the report states.

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