The $7.8-billion Everglades restoration project is over budget and behind schedule, an internal U.S. Army Corps of Engineers memo says.

The memo was sent by Gary Hardesty, the Corps’s program manager for the Everglades restoration to officials preparing a five-year progress report on the project to Congress. The Corps is required to update Congress on the status of the project by December. It warns them not to be overly optimistic. The project has seen nearly $1 billion in cost increases and has missed nearly every milestone, Hardesty says.

Members of the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility leaked the internal memo to the public on March 21.

The project now faces political challenges due to vast changes in Washington since the program’s approval in 1999. Hardesty warns that the project must be geared toward members of the House and Senate who have never encountered the project in a newly cash-strapped Washington, the memo says.

Some in Congress consider the program to be near extinction. “I’m hearing statements like, ‘the Everglades restoration project is dead,’” Hardesty says.

Corps officials say the memo was intended to stress the importance of being completely truthful in the report to Congress. “This was a cautionary internal memo,” says Dave Hewitt, a Corps spokesman in Washington, D.C. Hardesty was including anecdotal information to give officials a sense of the mood in Washington towards the project, says Hewitt. The objective was to stress the importance of not being overly optimistic in the report and of providing complete and honest explanations of every aspect of the program, Hewitt says.

Florida officials say the memo does not adequately reflect the project as a whole. “The memo is a reflection of frustration on the part of the Army Corps of Engineers at their lack of maneuverability due to the constraints of working through the federal government,” says Ernie Barnett, director of ecosystems projects, Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection in Tallahasse.

The state of Florida has committed 1.1 billion to the everglades project thus far. It has acquired 80% of the lands for the 10 initial projects and 53% of the lands for the 68 overall projects, says Barnett. The state will spend an additional 1.5 billion on the construction of the 10 initial projects over the next five years. Overall, the state will have spent $3 billion of local money in the first decade of the projects, says Barnett. “At this point in the project the feds have only contributed $230 million,” he says. But that number is misleading because typically the state buys all of the land necessary for a project of this size and the federal government heavily invests in the construction, he says.

Hardesty memo in full at: