By BRIAN SKOLOFF
The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 21, 2007; 9:14 PM
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The multibillion-dollar project to restore the Everglades has come to a near standstill, and the government can no longer estimate how much it will cost or how long it will take, the top federal official in charge of construction told The Associated Press.
In part because Congress has failed to come through with the promised money, some tasks have fallen years behind schedule. In the meantime, construction costs are rising, along with the price of the Florida real estate that must be bought up as part of the plan to restore the natural flow of water in the Everglades.
The largest wetlands restoration effort in the world _ approved in 2000 and formally known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, or CERP _ was originally estimated to cost $7.8 billion and take 30 years. By last year, the price tag had been put at $10.5 billion, and experts said it could take 50 years.
Now it's anybody's guess.
"I don't know what the cost of CERP is right now because the cost of land down there has skyrocketed and the cost of construction in South Florida has also gone through the roof," Gary Hardesty, the Everglades restoration chief for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told the AP on Tuesday.
Because of the uncertainty over federal funding and a lack of scientific data that the projects will actually work, Hardesty said, the Corps is being forced to adopt a slower, more deliberate pace.
The project _ signed into law by President Clinton with bipartisan support _ called for the construction of reservoirs, back-filling of canals and rerouting of water to rescue the fast-shrinking Everglades and preserve the remarkable variety of plants and wildlife that inhabit it, including egrets, rare orchids, alligators and panthers.
Eric Draper, policy director for the conservation group Audubon of Florida, was once optimistic but now isn't so sure.
"The federal government simply isn't in a position now to be able to afford the promises made with Everglades restoration, and the price just keeps going up," Draper said. "The federal government is broke. The state has deep budget shortfalls. Where's the money going to come from?"
The Everglades once covered 4 million acres of swampland but has shrunk to half its size over the past 150 years because of the building of dikes, dams and homes in booming Florida and the effects of the sugar cane fields and other farms on its fringes. The swampland that remains is in ecological distress because of pollution from urban runoff and farm fertilizers.
The 2000 plan made the federal government and Florida 50-50 partners in the project to heal the River of Grass.
To date, the state has committed more than $2 billion and pushed ahead alone with a few projects _ including the building of several reservoirs to store water for use during dry spells _ in the hope the Corps would catch up.
But in large part because of the cost of the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, Congress has appropriated only several million dollars. And the only work that has been done on any of the Corps' 68 projects has been on paper.
In the meantime, wildlife habitat continues to disappear, and pollution is killing native plants, allowing nonnative species to invade.
Hardesty acknowledged that "the state is way out in front of us," and said the Corps will focus more on smaller projects that can be bundled together, instead of huge undertakings.
That way, if funding disappears because of some unforeseen event, such as another big hurricane or a new war, the Corps might still have something to show for its efforts.
"What I do not want to have happen is we start building the 68 components, and maybe the money dries up and we've built a reservoir out there but we can't get water to it," he said. "I want to make sure that when we build, say, the first six or seven projects, that they function and they work, and if nothing else, and that's all we do, I want to be proud of that."
Still, no construction can begin on any of the projects until at least 2009, he said.
"There's a lot of unknowns out there," Hardesty said. "The science is unproven. We've got tremendous challenges."
And even with the new, more deliberate plan, funding could be hard to get.
Congress just passed a water projects bill over President Bush's veto that includes about $1.8 billion for Everglades restoration. However, the bill only approves the funds. It doesn't actually allocate them. In fact, there are still items in a 2000 water projects bill that have yet to be funded by Congress.
"We're going to have to fight for those funds," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. "We have been trying for seven years to get these projects authorized."
In the meantime, the state has bought about 202,000 acres of land in and around the Everglades. But that represents only about half the land that will have to be acquired.
Because of rising real estate prices, the delays in acquiring the land are certain to prove costly.
In 2000, the cost of the land was estimated at $2,000 an acre. That has now soared to nearly $20,000 because of population growth and the building of homes farther and farther inland, said Carol Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency in charge of restoration.
Eric Buermann, board chairman of the water agency, said he wonders if the project will ever be done.
"There are a lot of other competing interests for the money. We have the Iraq war. We have the rebuilding of New Orleans," Buermann said. "And the Everglades continues to suffer. Who knows how long it can last without some real substantial restoration efforts? We can't stop the clock."