Rep. Diaz-Balart said he’s been fighting to get federal money for projects meant to protect the Everglades since he’s been in Congress but that it’s become clear in recent years how important Lake Okeechobee’s stability is to that effort. Along with U.S. Representative Alcee Hastings (D-Miami) he founded and co-chairs the Everglades Coalition group of lawmakers that works to ensure funding for programs that help sustain a healthy Everglades and its namesake national park.
“[Several] years ago, we had a meeting of the coalition where we had representatives from the 16 counties that are within the South Florida Water Management District who came to Washington, and they were very clear which is their priority No. 1 — obviously, Everglades restoration should be. But priority No. 1 on the timetable has to be this dike repair,” Rep. Diaz-Balart said. “It’s a no-brainer.”
He cited as most important its safety function: The dike exists to protect nearby communities from flooding or another catastrophic loss of life in a hurricane such as occurred twice in the 1920s. But the congressman added that environmental issues have arisen because the dike is not as strong as it should be, plus economic and homeowner cost issues.
The corps’ management of lake levels, he said, has caused ecological fallout.
“Since the dike has been struggling, you have to lower the water level rather substantially, and then that creates environmental issues down the road. We saw those algae blooms along the coast two years ago because you have to dump the water from the lake … to keep it lower than we would like to because the dike has not been, frankly, rebuilt,” he said.
He continued: “it’s an economic issue because the lake is a big part of the economy; it’s an environmental issue because you have to release water that you don’t necessarily want to release that quickly; and it’s a safety issue; but it’s also a cost issue.
Why? Because it affects what people pay in flood insurance rates in some areas.”
Rep. Diaz-Balart pointed out that recently amended Federal Emergency Management Agency floodplain maps helped local homeowners.
“A big part here, now, has been lifted from being in that flood zone, and there were about 400 homes that were still underneath that, in Clewiston alone. When you’re dealing with that, you’re dealing with, then, whether you can sell properties; how do you mortgage them, etc.”
So he and fellow Everglades Coalition members have been trying to help expedite the dike rehab work as much as possible.
“We’ve gotten full funding every year for the last number of years,” he said. “Last year was, I believe, $49.5 million; the request this year is more, because it goes up and down depending on what the projects are.”
Rep. Diaz-Balart said he’s heard people criticize the plodding nature of the work, which isn’t scheduled to be completed until 2025 but may be, if Gov. Scott has his way, finished by 2022 instead.
Roughly $870 million worth of the rehabilitation has been done so far; recent corps projections estimate another $800 million will be needed to meet the 2025 goal.
“I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘Well, why don’t you just find and put all the money in now?’ Well, in the first place, you can’t do all the projects overnight, or at once. It’s a long process,” he said.
“And it’s not like every building company can do these things. These are highly sophisticated, very specialized companies,” Rep. Diaz-Balart added, noting that only a few firms exist that are capable of taking on the massive projects. He said they involve much more than just moving dirt, especially engineering and coordination with other nearby or related projects.
“The good news is that the one [culvert project] that we just visited, which is the one right over here,” he said, pointing west from a dock outside the tiki bar at Martin’s Fishing Marina & Resort in Clewiston, “that’s 43 days ahead of schedule. About half of the culverts around the entirety of the lake are going to be done, really, within the next year.
And these are major projects. So there’s a lot of progress being done, and you know, we want it to be faster, but … a lot of progress has been made.
“I give a lot of credit to the leadership of the folks here, the local folks, but also, in particular, the colonel, who’s been phenomenal,” he said of the Army Corps’ Col. Kirk.
“I can’t tell you what a breath of fresh air he’s been to deal with.”
Asked how much money would be available in future years to finish the work, given President Donald Trump’s intention to cut the Corps of Engineers’ budget, Rep. Diaz-Balart responded:
“Well, that’s one of the challenges. We’ve gotten $50 million for 2017; I think the year before was $60 million and something.
The request, however, for ’18 is a healthy request from the administration. But this and Everglades restoration are a big part of the entirety of the funding that that subcommittee of [the House] Appropriations [Committee] has to spend.
So the overall request now, percentage-wise, theoretically is a higher percentage of the overall pot, [and] that creates difficulties for those of us that are trying to fight for the money.
I plan to be successful again, but it’s more challenging when you have less money, obviously.”
The congressman praised Florida’s Gov. Scott for getting $50 million in the state’s fiscal 2018 budget to try to expedite the project but noted it’s not certain that will work.
“So far, this is strictly a federal project; the dike is a federal project. Gov. Scott never ceases to amaze me with his willingness to just disregard red tape and … try to find solutions, and so I’m in awe of his wanting to now be helpful.
And I know that now the corps is now in touch with the state to figure out what they can do and what exactly that means, but I will tell you that just shows you … the importance of this project, and … that we have a governor that’s not willing to just sit back and let things happen.”
On the topic of a possible change to the South Florida Water Management District’s schedule for lake levels, he said: “That’s not my call.
My role has been to try to be as helpful as possible in trying to break through the red tape and, in many cases, in getting the funding.
“My priority is to try to get this done, and I’m concentrating on that,” he concluded. “I’m not the scientist. The nuts and bolts affect what we do … [but] we’ve just got to keep working.”