Acceler8 projects may be scaled back by a Jan. 29 referendum.
Concerned about reduced revenue and borrowing capacity if property-tax reform passes at the ballot box in January, water district officials in South Florida who are overseeing Everglades restoration are weighing priorities and limiting new contracting activity.
Florida citizens will vote Jan. 29 on a property-tax referendum that could cause the South Florida Water Management District to take a $25 million-to-$30 million annual revenue hit. This would dampen the district's borrowing capability, capped at 20 percent of revenues. Whether the referendum passes or not, the state legislature is expected to readdress the property-tax issue this spring. That could lead to a second referendum in November.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan began as an $8-billion, 50/50 federal-state partnership, but when federal funding failed to come through the state established, in 2004, a $1.5-billion fast-track program. Acceler8 was expanded and has spent $2.5 billion so far. Meanwhile, estimates for the cost of the original CERP scope have climbed. In September, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated total CERP costs rose to $10.1 billion in 2006. Restoring the South Florida Ecosystem would cost an estimated $19.7 billion.
"We need to take a step-wise approach to the scheduling of the Acceler8 projects," says Ken Ammon, deputy executive director of the SFWMD, which is in charge of the Everglades restoration. "We need to make interim steps and slide
Ammon expects the district will continue awarding small contracts, but it is likely no large jobs, such as reservoirs, will be let until after November. Letting for two reservoir projects, each valued at $350 million, are already on hold. One had been scheduled to start construction in October and the other in spring 2008.
"Everyone is holding their breath," says Mark Perry, state co-chair of the Everglades Coalition, an alliance of 45 conservation and environmental organizations. "The district governing board is trying to keep things going. They are under a financial bind until we know what is going on."
Work is progressing and will continue to on the water management district's $500 million Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir project, in Western Palm Beach County, and two stormwater treatment areas (B & C). It has completed several smaller projects, including some road removal and home demolition at Picayune Strand, formerly the Southern Golden Gate Estates subdivision, and plugging the Prairie Canal.
Any reprioritizing of Acceler8 projects will be state-driven, Ammon says. "We continue to be totally committed to implementation of the Acceler8 program," Ammon adds. "There is a lot of benefit for implementation, especially from a storage perspective."
Acceler8 projects will provide about 400,000 acre-feet of water storage, enough to lower Lake Okeechobee by 1 ft, which will help maintain the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes repairs, while keeping the water within the ecosystem.
The possible resequencing of CERP projects not already started will be carried out in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, adds Kim Taplin, West Palm Beach deputy program manger for restoration for the Army Corps of Engineers. "We are doing it together and getting public input," Taplin says.
The Corps has begun reprioritizing its projects at the recommendation of the National Academy on Science. "They said we need to think about doing incremental adaptive restoration, which is those things that you know most about, that you know will provide early benefits," Taplin says. "There are ways we could move those components forward quicker to get early benefits."
Congress included three CERP projects in its Water Resources Development Act of 2007: the $1.3 billion Indian River Lagoon South in Martin and St. Lucie County, the $375.3 million Picayune Strand project, and the $80.8 million Site 1 Reservoir restoration on the Palm Beach-Broward county line. Taplin says the Corps will take the very large, complicated projects and break them into smaller parts that can be completed quickly. Commencement of the work must wait for an appropriations bill.
"Nothing is off the table," says Taplin, who hopes to deliver a new list of Corps priorities by summer.
a few schedules, if we need to, until we get clarity," Ammon says. "Once we have clarity, we will reformulate the program."