Congressional Leaders, Environmentalists Talk Impact Of Federal $8B Water Bill To Fla.

Oct 25, 2013

As Congress starts to work out some disparities between two slightly different water bills, Florida Congressmen and environmental groups are lauding the passage of the about $8 billion legislation as a victory. That’s because a portion of that money is slated for several Florida water projects, including Everglades restoration efforts.

When Florida Congressman Patrick Murphy recently spoke on the House floor in favor of the water bill, he brought with him a prop from Florida’s St. Lucie Estuary.

“These issues are simply too important to ignore. That is why I’m here to day with this bottle of polluted water behind me to show the severity of this ongoing crisis,” said Murphy.

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act, better known as WRRDA, passed by a vote of 417 votes to three. And Murphy says almost a fourth of the money goes to the Sunshine State…

“So, there was about $8 billion approved in new projects. Florida received about 1.8 billion of that. So, we definitely got a great share of that, and a lot of that was because of the work of the Florida delegation tirelessly advocating for these projects,” said Murphy, in a conference call a day after the vote.

Murphy, a Democrat who represents the 18th district, and 19th District Republican Congressman Trey Radel, have been working together to raise awareness about protecting Florida’s waterways.

That includes the St. Lucie Estuary and the Caloosahatchee River, which have been damaged by polluted water discharges from Lake Okeechobee. Radel says the bill would authorize the construction of a much-needed reservoir for the Caloosahatchee River.

“Right now, the Army Corps of Engineers is dumping water out of Lake Okeechobee and dirty, filthy freshwater is being released into the gulf, and hitting the beautiful beaches of Sanibel , Fort Myers all the way down to Naples and Marco Island. It’s inexcusable the way that this is working and functioning right now. So, we’re going to build a reservoir to be one of the many parts to prevent that,” said Radel.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for releasing water from Lake Okeechobee to reduce pressure on the Herbert Hoover Dike—parts of which are about 80 years old. Radel says the bill also mandates the Corps streamline the amount of time it takes to implement a project.

“There are some projects across the U.S. that has taken as many as 10 to 15 years to just wait for permitting. To me, this is inexcusable, and our economy can’t move forward when we’re waiting for a permitting process that lasts for a decade. In our bill, we’re shortening it to three years,” added Radel.

And, 22nd District Congresswoman Lois Frankel, who sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee that drafted the bill, says that was a very important provision—particularly because of Port Everglades.

It’s one of the leading container ports in the U.S., would get approval to expand as part of a project to help ports around the country accommodate large vessels after the Panama Canal is widened in 2015.

But, it’s been nearly two decades since this project started—and if WRRDA is signed into law, it will give the Army Corps the go-ahead to proceed—and make sure projects like these don’t take as long.

“17 years is way out of bounds, and why it makes a difference, especially in the case of Port Everglades, is they’re in competition with foreign ports. You have bigger ports, ports that can accommodate these big Panamax ships being built in Freeport, in Cuba, and Port Everglades is not ready to accept these big ships. They’re going to start going to other ports, which means the jobs are not going to be here in the U.S, but someplace else. That’s why, the old expression: 'Time is money.' That’s certainly the case here,” said Frankel.

Environmental groups, including Audubon Florida, also like what’s included in this year’s bill. Still, that group’s Executive Director Eric Draper says there’s one more item he’d like to include.

“If there was one more thing that we could get in this WRRDA bill, it would be the “Central Everglades Plan.” Unfortunately, the Army Corp of Engineers isn’t quite finished with their planning on that project, but it’s just a couple of days away and maybe somewhere in the process we can persuade the House and the Senate to add it to their compromise version of the bill. And, that plan is going to allow more freshwater to get into the Everglades National Park, and that really is the final result of Everglades restoration we’re after,” said Draper.

Now, that the bill has passed the House, both chambers of Congress are working out a compromise between the recently passed House bill and a similar measure that passed the Senate in May. It’s believed the President will sign the finished product into law.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on twitter @SaschaCordner.