Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Plan to fix Everglades water would cost $1 billion-plus

HOMESTEAD -- Federal and state officials are close to settling upon a $1 billion-plus plan they hope will speed up Everglades restoration and bring more water, sooner, to the southern Everglades, including Everglades National Park.

"This is about restoring conditions north of Tamiami Trail and within the park and in Florida Bay," said Kim Taplin, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Central Everglades branch. "This is about improving conditions over a very large area."

The Corps expects to officially put the plan forward for public comment and review in late April with hopes that it will receive formal approval before the end of the year. After that, it would be eligible for funding from Congress.

But details of what is currently being called the "tentatively selected plan" have already been laid out and presented at working group meetings for the Central Everglades Planning Project, a Corps initiative that began in 2011 in hopes of speeding up Everglades restoration. In a Congressionally mandated report last year, the National Research Council panned the slow pace of the $13.5 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

If it is finalized by year's end, the CEPP process will have taken just two years to complete planning on five different CERP projects in cohesion. Typically, the planning process for a single project takes five to seven years.

CEPP is a pilot project for the Corps, which hopes to implement expedited planning for projects elsewhere in the country if it proves effective.

Under the proposed Central Everglades plan, a new water retention area would be constructed in the Everglades Agricultural Area, south of Lake Okeebchobee, reducing the amount of water flushed to sea for flood control purposes through the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

A series of other steps, including backfilling canals, increasing pumping capacity and removing levees, would also direct more water through the Central Everglades, where it eventually would be left to move south on its own, following its natural course into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.

Models suggest that once complete, the projects laid out in CEPP would direct 65 billion additional gallons of water per year through those areas, hydrating marsh and sloughs and increasing much needed freshwater flows into overly salty Florida Bay.

But like everything else related to Everglades restoration, which attempts to balance hydrological needs of the natural system with flood control and urban freshwater demands, the Central Everglades plan isn't free of pitfalls.

In this case, the main difficulty is caused by the porous limestone that makes up the subsurface of South Florida. Water that makes its way into the ground table percolates through the limestone, spreading as it goes.

For natural areas, that's not a problem. But in Miami-Dade County, extra groundwater moving east from the newly hydrated Central Everglades would create flooding problems if not contained.

To deal with the problem, planners proposed building a five-mile seepage barrier just east and south of the Tamiami Trail. But models showed that the barrier would be too effective, making Miami-Dade susceptible to water shortages and also reducing important freshwater flow into Biscayne National Park.

Under the terms of CERP, the Corps and its state co-sponsor, the South Florida Water Management District, cannot reduce water supplies to end users, such as cities and utilities.

Planners responded, reducing the length of and depth of the proposed seepage barrier in their most recent proposal. The latest model, released last week, showed better results, said Susan Markley, who heads the water resources team at the Miami-Dade Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources. But it still showed that some areas in Miami-Dade would be too dry at times of the year and other areas would be too wet at times.

Markley wasn't ready to give the overall CEPP proposal an endorsement.

"They are making improvements in what we can see so far, but we are not sure it is completely resolved yet," she said.

The Corps promises that as the projects laid out in the CEPP proposal are implemented they will be adapted based upon real world conditions.

Markley said a clear approach to that adaptive management process is important to provide more assurance to Miami-Dade officials.

The concerns of Miami-Dade are founded, acknowledged Megan Tinsley, a departing Audubon of Florida policy analyst.

But she emphasized the restoration benefits of bringing so much more water through the Central Everglades.

"I think the glitches can be worked out through further refinement," Tinsley said.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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