March 24, 2017
Trump's cut to Corps of Engineers' budget could slow Everglades restoration
By Ledyard King
WASHINGTON – Supporters of Everglades restoration are worried that President Donald Trump’s proposal to slash $1 billion from the Army Corps of Engineers’ budget next year could derail hard-fought progress on Florida’s massive, decades-long water project.
As part of a budget outline released last week, the White House proposed an array of cuts.The reductions are intended mainly to help pay for a military buildup and a wall along the border with Mexico without raising taxes.
Among the proposals is a 16 percent reduction to the Corps of Engineers' budget. The Corps' funding would drop from $6 billion this year to $5 billion in 2018.
The proposal doesn’t offer any more details on what projects it would recommend preserving or eliminating. The administration is not expected to release more information until at least May.
But any cut to the agency overseeing the nation’s water programs is a red flag to Florida lawmakers who have worked as a bipartisan group for years to restore the famed River of Grass.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said the proposed cut would come at a crucial time, given Congress’ recent passage of water bills authorizing key elements of a complex plan for the Everglades.
The plan would store and send water south from Lake Okeechobee on its natural course and away from the east and west coasts, where contaminated runoff has created toxic conditions.
“We have been doing Everglades restoration for 20 years,” Nelson said in an interview. “We need to keep it going because we’re just now getting projects authorized.
"The final projects that will really redirect (flow) and get that cleaner water moving south, you can’t do it out of thin air," he said. "You’ve got to have the appropriations.”
And it’s not just the Everglades that could be affected by the cut, he said, referring to the Corps’ other water projects in Florida: port dredging, beach replenishment and flood control.
Some Republicans are pushing back as well.
U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee that will craft the final spending plan, was dismayed at the proposed reduction.
Rooney “thought the Corps was significantly underfunded in the Obama administration’s 2016 and 2017 budget,” said Meghan Rodgers, a spokeswoman for him. “He does not support another billion-dollar cut to Corps funding, specifically because of what it could mean for the Everglades and other projects important to Florida.”
The proposed cut comes at a time when the Florida Legislature is considering an ambitious $2.4 billion plan to buy 60,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee and build a reservoir to store water. The federal government would be asked to provide half of that amount, or $1.2 billion.
Adding that request to the list of projects already authorized would complicate efforts at a time of limited resources, said U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, the Naples Republican who has helped lead the Florida delegation's efforts to push for Everglades funding.
The first-term lawmaker said his priority is ensuring the federal government meets its commitment to match state funding for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. As of December, Florida had spent $2.165 billion on the project, while the federal government had provided $1.26 billion, according to Rooney’s office.
Last weekend, Francis Rooney hosted U.S. Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., chairman of a key appropriations subcommittee. He took Calvert on an aerial and airboat tour of the sprawling ecosystem and hosted a dinner for him Saturday night with board members of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
Francis Rooney said he is not panicking about Trump’s proposed budget.
“Certainly, cutting (16 percent) is a huge number,” he said. “But we’re going to work hard to get as much as we can get for the Everglades. We have this existing commitment by the feds. We just want to see them live up to it.”
Eric Eikenberg, chief executive of The Everglades Foundation, also downplayed the proposed cut, saying Congress will have the final say on Corps funding.
He said there’s a “sense of urgency” to finish parts of the Everglades project, the world’s largest environmental restoration effort, and he said lawmakers understand that, citing Calvert’s recent visit.
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a conservative Republican representing a western part of Florida’s Panhandle, said he wants to hear more about the reasons for the White House's proposal.
“I think it’s got to be viewed in the broader context of reforms," Gaetz said. "If there’s a way to do the job with less resources, I want to give President Trump the benefit of the doubt to show us how that can occur.
“There are going to be cuts. The government’s too big.”