Senate passes Everglades bill that may be key to implementing plan

Saturday, January 25, 2003

Naples Daily News

WASHINGTON, D.C. Environmentalists were optimistic Friday that an amendment passed by the Senate would clear the way for the heart of the Everglades restoration project to be carried out.

The amendment, co-sponsored by Florida Sens. Bob Graham, D-Miami Lakes, Bill Nelson, D-Tallahassee, and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, clarifies language to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a levee and canal system around most of an 8½-square-mile area in southwest Dade County.

The project, known as Alternative 6D, is seen as the last sticking point in the execution of the Modified Waters Delivery Project, which is aimed at restoring water flow to Everglades National Park.

"The 6D project was serving as a cork on Everglades restoration," said Brad Sewell, a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council. "This amendment really allows us to pull out the cork and let the water flow."

But Sewell said he was concerned the amendment wouldn't be included in the final version of the bill that is presented to President Bush.

The Senate passed the amendment late Thursday in its $390 billion-plus spending package. The amendment also must be approved in a conference committee with members from the House of Representatives before President Bush could sign it into law.

Sewell said key House members still oppose the 6D project and could decide to strike it from the final legislation.

Terry Rice, a former Army Corps of Engineers colonel, said he was hopeful the House would stop the project but was irritated that such an action would mean further delays in preserving the Everglades. He has long been a proponent of Alternative 1, a less-expensive option that wouldn't involve displacing any residents.

Alternative 6D calls for taking up to 10 parcels and would cost an estimated $88.1 million to implement compared with an estimated $30.6 million for Alternative 1.

"This is really a black day for Everglades restoration, minority rights, property rights, human rights," Rice said Friday. "When elected officials gang up on a powerless Hispanic community and decide to take their houses, that can only be described as a black day in this whole process."

In the 8½-square-mile area, 98 percent of residents are Hispanic and Cuban.

The South Florida Water Management District initially approved Alternative 6D in 2000. The plan would construct a levee and canal system around 87 percent of the existing property within the 8½-square-mile area. The rest of the land would have to be purchased, and some homeowners have balked at giving up their property.

That same year, Congress appropriated $50 million to implement the plan, but a federal judge ruled last year that it didn't include language to authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to buy out the land.

The amendment approved by the Senate clarifies that language and gives the Army Corps of Engineers the authority to carry out Alternative 6D.

Dennis Duke, program manager for ecosystem restoration at the Army Corps' Jacksonville district, said if the bill becomes law, it would still need to be presented to the judge before the project would begin. He predicted it would take about two years from the beginning of the project before it is completed.

He said the project's approval would allow the Army Corps to return to planning and design of a number of main projects in the heart of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a water restoration project covering 16 counties over an 18,000-square-mile area. The Army Corps suspended that work last year until Alternative 6D was approved.

Still, that will all depend on who is appointed to the conference committee next week.

Malia Hale of the National Wildlife Federation said she was cautiously optimistic the plan would be approved, saying she was hopeful the conferees "will see that this is the way to go.

"This would be a relief to a lot of people," she said.


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