Southwest Florida restoration study: Five years late, costs $5 million more

By JEREMY COX, Daily News Correspondent

December 25, 2007

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of stories to be published on and in the Daily News through the end of the year, looking back at people and issues that had been in the news during the past year, but not recently.

A map of the ecological restoration needs of Southwest Florida won’t emerge until the end of 2009, nearly five years past its original due date, a South Florida Water Management District official said.

In addition, the cost of the long-awaited Southwest Florida Feasibility Study has gone up -- from $12 million to $17 million -- but the expectations for it have been lowered.

Instead of drawing up detailed engineering plans for the scores of restoration projects called for in the plan, state and federal restoration managers will deliver conceptual versions of the projects.

“Instead of trying to force ourselves in a mold that wasn’t working very well, we’re taking a step back to the original feasibility study level,” said Janet Starnes, the project’s manager for the water management district.

But two environmental groups contend that the changes, which are pending final approval from the heads of the state and federal partners, amount to a gutting of the feasibility study.

“It’s just in limbo right now,” said Nancy Payton, the Florida Wildlife Federation’s Southwest Florida field representative who was joined by the National Wildlife Federation in criticizing the move in a newspaper commentary. “We don’t know what the feasibility study is going to be. It keeps devolving as time goes on.”

The pending overhaul comes amid widespread concern about the lack of money available for the massive Everglades restoration campaign, of which the Southwest Florida study is part.

With federal dollars tied up in the war in Iraq and post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, many Everglades projects have been delayed, leading a top U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official to say in November that the plan faces “tremendous challenges,” according to the Associated Press.

The South Florida Water Management District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are splitting the duty of restoring the Everglades, which includes building city-size water reservoirs to hold back water for nature and public consumption, back-filling canals and constructing marshes to filter harmful nutrients before they reach the River of Grass.

The plan, signed into law by Congress in 2000, is broken down into 68 projects, but most benefit the eastern side of South Florida.

A 4,300-square-mile swath of Southwest Florida was largely left out of the plan because the area lacked the volumes of data on groundwater and surface water flows necessary to develop a guide for restoration.

Work on the Southwest Florida study began shortly after the ink dried on the federal Everglades bill.

But progress bogged down a few years later when the study got swept up by a federal decree that expanded the study’s scope and complexity, Starnes said.

The Corps asked its project managers to draw up early engineering plans for all of their Everglades-related projects, a move intended to help speed them through the federal funding process.

The move made sense for individual projects -- such as the restoration of Southern Golden Gate Estates in eastern Collier County, which, thanks in part to such efforts, recently has received federal approval for construction.

However, it turned the feasiblity study into a bureaucratic monster, Starnes said.

The study area includes all of Lee, most of Collier and Hendry, and portions of Charlotte, Glades and Monroe counties.

Restoring the Gordon River, fixing Estero Bay’s broken tributaries and reviving Camp Keais in eastern Collier County are among the more than 100 so-called “management measures” under consideration.

Having to design each project as the Corps had ordered would have been “unreasonable,” Starnes said.

In fact, progess stopped in October 2006, when the Corps reached the $6 million threshold it had set for its share of the work on the feasibility study. The agency halted its staff from attending project meetings with the water management district and other agencies involved in the effort.

That left water management district officials in the dark about what their counterparts at the Corps were doing.

Corps scientists, at the time, were developing computer models that will be used to screen project ideas and select the ones that do the most to restore natural water flows. Without those models, water management district officials were stuck in a virtual holding pattern as well.

Corps officials have spent the past year doing some technical studies related to the study and working on ways to make it more manageable, said Stu Appelbaum, deputy for restoration management at the Corps.

During an interview, he used the word “holistic” three times to describe the new approach to the feasibility study.

“I don’t think this is a gutting,” he said, referring to Payton’s previously published comments. “I think we’re sharpening the focus and trying to make sure the solutions we come up with are holistic. ... The question is why do you need that and what does that accomplish within the context of all the needs you have.”

Last summer, as project leaders with the Corps and water management district mulled their options, they considered scaling back the size of the study area.

Because many aspects of fixing the western end of the Caloosahatchee River were included in another Everglades project, the restoration managers had suggested removing that area from the feasibility study. The river, along with its fellow Lake Okeechobee outlet the St. Lucie River, also received a boost last spring with Gov. Charlie Crist’s signing of a bill authorizing $40 million to improve the water quality of each.

“There was a feeling it was a bit duplicative,” Starnes said.

But after environmental groups, joined by the city of Sanibel and Lee County government, cried foul, the Caloosahatchee was put back into the study.

Since they couldn’t reduce the size of the study geographically, restoration managers opted to scale back their design goals (a trio of tentative plans is due in January). The result will be akin to having a simple sketch of a house rather than the blueprints, but Starnes and other officials are hopeful that it will bring them to the construction phase sooner.

According to initial estimates, the study was to have been submitted to Congress in March 2005; by last year, that goal had been moved October 2008. Now, Starnes said, the aim is to have the study ready by December 2009.

Brad Cornell of the Collier County Audubon Society said he’s glad that restoration managers have returned the feasibility study to its original scope. He just wishes they had done it sooner.

“It’s been so ridiculously detailed that it just bogged the whole process down and then they ran out of money for it,” he said. “They should have done it much faster than they did.”

Like many South Florida environmentalists, Cornell is worried that the steam of funding will dry up before the Everglades restoration work is finished. Once projected to take 30 years, the plan’s completion no longer has a set date, the Associated Press reported.

South Florida is not sustainable ecologically or economically without Everglades restoration, coast to coast,” Cornell said.

Contact Jeremy Cox at