Florida Republicans unhappy over Everglades restoration
AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:
For more than two decades, Florida and the federal government have worked on one of the largest environmental projects ever - restoring the Everglades. There's been significant progress, and now there's new momentum. The Biden administration's recently approved infrastructure bill includes more than a billion dollars for the project, but that's left some Florida Republican officials unhappy. NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In the heart of Florida's Everglades, there are miles of sawgrass, alligators, herons and egrets that wade and forage in the shallow marshland. And there's a highway. Tamiami Trail was built nearly a century ago, connecting Miami with Tampa. Marisa Carrozzo of the Everglades Coalition says the highway has effectively become a dam, causing long-term damage to an ecosystem that depends on a seasonal flow of fresh water.
MARISA CARROZZO: We are looking at one of the core pieces of restoring the Everglades, which is removing a barrier to sending water south to Everglades National Park and ultimately to Florida Bay.
ALLEN: Now, more than 3 miles of bridges span a critical stretch of highway, allowing more water into an area that Carrozzo says has been parched for decades.
CARROZZO: They're already seeing increased flows into Everglades National Park. They're seeing increased hydroperiods, which is essentially just the water staying on the landscape for longer periods of time. And so they're seeing those benefits already.
ALLEN: Evelyn Gaiser is an aquatic ecologist at Florida International University who studied the Everglades for two decades. She says the increased flow of water has helped bring back native animals and plants, but it's not enough.
EVELYN GAISER: We still need much more water, and we especially need more water in our dry season, and we're waiting for that.
ALLEN: When it was signed into law more than 20 years ago, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was the largest and most expensive environmental project ever undertaken. It's now estimated to cost more than $23 billion, and spending is accelerating.
The Biden administration included $1.1 billion in its recently approved infrastructure bill. It was the largest single allocation of federal funding ever for Everglades restoration, but not a single Republican from Florida voted for the bill. At a news conference, Congressman Brian Mast had this to say.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
BRIAN MAST: That's the Biden administration sending a middle finger over to Florida, unfortunately, and this is what we see over and over again.
ALLEN: Mast was joined by Florida's governor and by Senator Marco Rubio, all of them Republicans who support the federal state project. What they don't like is that in this round of funding, the Biden administration didn't include money for a huge reservoir that they say is their top priority. Here's Rubio.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARCO RUBIO: I actually think it's the reason - one of the reasons why it wasn't funded is because they understand that that had become a priority for policymakers in Florida.
ALLEN: Other advocates for the Everglades don't share Republicans' concerns. Carrozzo's coalition, which includes over 60 environmental groups, thanked President Biden for his, quote, "bold vision" and historic investment. The Biden administration official overseeing Everglades restoration, Shannon Estenoz, wouldn't comment on the politics involved. But she says despite what Republicans say, work on the Everglades Agricultural Area, EAA, Reservoir, a $2 billion Army Corps of Engineers project, is underway.
SHANNON ESTENOZ: It's already issued a couple of construction contracts. This notion that somehow the EAA Reservoir hasn't - isn't moving forward is not accurate.
ALLEN: But plans for the massive reservoir have been controversial. Big sugar companies, which farm huge swaths of the northern Everglades, are fighting it. Along with the reservoir, scientists say as many as 100,000 acres of land will be needed for wetlands to remove pollutants from the water. Finding that much land in an area that's now farmland will be difficult. Even if that happens, Florida international university ecologist Evelyn Gaiser says it will never be possible to fully restore the Everglades.
GAISER: We've lost so much of the area. We've lost a lot of the soils. We've lost a lot of the plant and animal communities. But can we rehabilitate it and create a system that has functions that are building resilience? Yes.
ALLEN: That's become even more important as Florida has begun to consider the impact of climate change and a rising sea level. Keeping the ecosystem healthy isn't vital just for animals and plants. The Everglades also provides drinking water for more than 8 million Floridians.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.