WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sally Jewell didn’t hesitate. Within seconds of taking our seats at the conference table in her 6th floor office, the new Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior said America’s Everglades is “highly important” to her department.
In office less than two weeks, Jewell set aside time last week to discuss protecting and restoring America’s Everglades with members of the Everglades Foundation board of directors, Mary Barley, Carlos de la Cruz, Ellin Goetz, Dr. Jim Kushlan, Bill Riley and Mike Sole as well as CEO Eric Eikenberg and Senior Scientist Dr. Tom Van Lent.
The visit to Jewell’s office was the culmination of two days in Washington jammed with meetings with members of congress, senators, key congressional staff, the House Everglades Caucus, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the White House Counsel on Environmental Quality. In addition, the Foundation hosted a successful reception at Florida House where Miss Florida 2012 Laura McKeeman spoke about the need to educate children about the importance of protecting America’s Everglades. We were honored to have Florida U.S. Representatives Dennis Ross, Joe Garcia and Ted Yoho join us. The Foundation was also pleased to meet a number of cattle ranchers north of Lake Okeechobee at the reception.
Among the important topics discussed were the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), Tamiami Trail bridging, funding for Everglades restoration and more. Discussions were frank and the Foundation got a clear understanding on the status of these issues.
Individual meetings were held with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, Florida U.S. Representatives Daniel Webster, Tom Rooney, Patrick Murphy, Joe Garcia, Lois Frankel, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Mario Diaz Balart, Ander Crenshaw and Trey Radel. The Foundation also met with House Appropriation Interior Subcommittee Chairman Mike Simpson of Idaho and Ranking Democrat Jim Moran of Virginia.
It became clear that success in Washington will depend on a unified Florida congressional delegation forcefully pushing for Everglades project money, an expedited CEPP Chiefs’ report from the Corps of Engineers, and inclusion of CEPP in WRDA. In addition, there needs to be continued cooperation and communication among federal, state and water management district partners
Both Republican and Democratic members expressed concerns about sequestration and the ban on earmarks that can impede Everglades restoration efforts
“We will do everything we can,” said Nelson about the need to ensure that CEPP is part of the 2013 WRDA bill. Rooney said unity is important. “The more that we can work together in concert the better off the Everglades is going to be.”
One of the most serious roadblocks is the completion of the Corps’ CEPP Chiefs’ report. That report is required to move CEPP into the WRDA bill. Without it, a key restoration project, one that provides critical water supply, could be delayed for years waiting for funding.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, during a meeting of the House Everglades Caucus, questioned Col. Alan Dodd of the Corps of Engineers about the delay in completing the Chief’s report. “It’s already been an extraordinarily long time,” said Wasserman Schultz.
Dodd said the goal was to have it completed by December 2013 but that it “may be delayed 2 or three months.” Later, when the Foundation met with Corps officials, the Foundation was told the report would likely be delayed until July 2014. The Corps said the delay is the result of additional data being requested by the South Florida Water Management District. Despite the potential delay, the District and Corps both say they are still trying to meet the December 2013 deadline.
Meeting privately with the Foundation team, Wasserman Schultz said on the Hill, “winning more friends for the Everglades is really, really important.”
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, founder and co-chair of the Everglades Caucus, told the Foundation that budget restraints continue to make appropriations difficult and that funding is “always going to be a heavy lift.”
Bettina Poirier, senior staff of California Sen. Boxer told the Foundation that the senator “strongly supports” Everglades restoration. “Everglades components of the (WRDA) bill are among the most important parts. It’s a driver of the bill. We are very much on your side.” The Foundation was also pleased to share a number of these concerns with Senator Jean Shaheen of New Hampshire. Sen. Shaheen serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee which will be dealing with Tamiami Trail funding, among other issues.
The Foundation was warmly received and our concerns were given careful consideration. The two-day trip helped keep the protection and restoration of America’s Everglades at the top of the environmental agenda in Washington.
Finally, we were glad to hear from Secretary Jewell that she plans to visit America’s Everglades this week.
Written by Brian Crowley, photos by Jessica Hodder.