As the 17th year of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) opens, both challenges and progress are evident in the restoration of the ecosystem of South Florida’s fabled River of Grass. In Everglades National Park and the adjoining Big Cypress National Preserve, water that has flowed down the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee still is not continuing south in the quantity, quality, timing and distribution required to sustain the historic ecosystem and meet the water-supply needs of the region’s 8 million human residents.

Contract awards and groundbreakings for projects to store, cleanse and move water south from Okeechobee mark the program’s progress. “We have momentum,” says Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works. “We've had our 10th groundbreaking just in the last seven years. This was a pace not seen in previous years," she says.

Lack of investment and federal lawsuits against Florida over water quality hindered progress for a while, Darcy says, “but that’s on track now.” The 2016 federal budget has a “healthy amount of money” for the program, and, in the 2017 budget, “hopefully, we’ll be able to continue that,” she says.

Construction to elevate the Tamiami Trail will be a major advance in restoring the flow of water into the Everglades. For 90 years, the road’s berm has blocked the historic flow. A one-mile section was elevated in 2013, and the National Park Service has authorization to construct 5.5 more miles of bridging.

A contract award for 2.6 miles of that is expected this month. “We’re hoping that, in April of this year, we may even be able to start the next phase of the Tamiami Trail,” Darcy says.

Program overviews from the Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District, the two principals in the federal-state partnership, claim dramatic improvement in the Everglades. A Corps list shows 15 projects underway, with $1.8 billion of federal investment through fiscal year 2015.

Under CERP, the state matches that investment. As a result, water district officials announced that total phosphorus levels in water entering the Everglades—a key measure of the threat to the ecosystem—have been reduced to less than 10 parts per billion in 90% of the southern Everglades region.

The mood was upbeat among the some 340 people attending the 31st Annual Everglades Coalition conference, held on Jan. 7-10 in Coral Gables, Fla.

'Halftime' Milestone Reached

“We’re on the way, but we’re only at halftime,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D), forecasting that the expected 30-year program would take 50 years to complete. Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, echoed Nelson’s optimism. But like others at the conference, he was critical of the state Legislature’s interpretation of Amendment 1 to the Florida constitution, a ballot initiative approved in November 2014, by 75% of the state’s voters—“a turning point,” he said.

The measure dedicates 33% of the real estate documentary excise tax to enable the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to acquire, restore, improve and manage conservation lands. That would have been an estimated $300 million this year, but the Legislature appropriated about $50 million for conservation, with the rest going for salaries, overhead, water-treatment plants and other purposes.

Speakers at the conference were incensed, and two lawsuits contesting the appropriations have been filed against the Legislature and state agencies.

Legislators resist land acquisition, notes Marian Ryan, conservation chair for the Ancient Islands Group of the Florida Sierra Club. “They are justifying their position by cutting off funding because, if you can’t fund proper management—like invasive-species control—you’re creating a situation where they can point at these failures and say, ‘Why are we keeping these lands that have limited value to  the public?