Toxic Water: Gov. announces $90 million for project to help water flow south through Everglades

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Gov. Rick Scott has committed $90 million to raise a Miami-Dade County stretch of highway, which could help the battered St. Lucie Estuary by letting more water move through a clogged-up area of the Everglades.

The Republican governor pledged state cash for the Tamiami Trail bridge at a Fort Myers event Wednesday. The 275-mile road, which was built in 1928, cuts through the Big Cypress National Preserve while heading west from Miami to Naples, before turning north to Tampa. The setup essentially dams water from heading naturally south into Everglades National Park.

Environmentalists believe raising Tamiami Trail is a must to kick off plans to send more Lake Okeechobee water south, instead of east into the St. Lucie Estuary and west into the Caloosahatchee River.

Construction on one mile of the bridge wrapped up in March at an $81 million cost.

The U.S. Department of Interior in 2010 suggested raising an additional 5.5 miles of the roadway, which would cost $324 million. By promising $30 million a year for the next three years, Scott's proposal would cover half of the $180 million bill to raise the next 2.6-mile section of the bridge.

"Every drop of water that we can send South and keep out of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Estuaries is a win for Florida families," Scott said in a news release. "My message to families being impacted is that we will not give up on you."

Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, called the trail project an important step.

"Obviously, any more we can do to get that opened up down at the bottom of that system would be helpful in the long-term to moving water south from Lake Okeechobee," Perry said. "How that affects us is, as we go forward with these projects and plans to put water south from the lake rather than east and west into the coastal estuaries, the option becomes more doable if there is capacity south."

Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg commended Scott for volunteering $90 million in state money for a 100 percent federal project.

"This Tamiami Trail was built in 1928, and it literally decapitated Everglades National Park," Eikenberg said. "What the governor has done today is, he has pulled the cork out of the bathtub and he's allowing water to flow south."

Eikenberg said the Tamiami Trail bridge makes the Central Everglades Planning Project viable. That initiative would cut some lake releases by using publicly owned land south of the lake to clean and move water into the Everglades.

The Central Everglades plan needs to make it into the federal Water Resources Development Act by Dec. 31. Despite a time crunch, Eikenberg said the schedule still shows the Army Corps of Engineers can get the project plan to Congress on time. Congress passed the last water bill in 2007, and it could take another seven years for the next.

At a $2 billion price tag, the Central Everglades plan would send about 65.2 billion gallons of Lake O water south each year rather into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee. The St. Lucie gets an average of about 143.4 billion gallons of water in discharges each year.

Some local river advocates have questioned if the Central Everglades plan would make enough of a difference for the St. Lucie.

Perry has proposed piggybacking off both projects with his plan, the River of Grass, which would eliminate lake releases. The project could cost $2 to $3 billion, requiring a purchase of $300 to $400 million worth of sugar land in the northern Everglades.

Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican and Senate budget chief, said the money to raise Tamiami Trail would come out of the Florida Department of Transportation's budget for this year.

After touring the St. Lucie Lock and Damn in Stuart last week, Scott also pledged $40 million for the stormwater treatment portion of a project on the C-44 Canal. The state-federal C-44 initiative, which could cost as much as $1 billion, would clean runoff into the canal and some Lake O freshwater releases, but wouldn't stop the lake discharges.

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