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Capitol Comment

    Capitol Comment 236 - The South Florida Re-Study: An $11 Billion Gamble

    06/08/1999

    What is the Re-Study? The Central and Southern Florida Comprehensive Review Study ("Re-Study") is a review of the Central and Southern Florida Project (C&SF) that recommends a dramatically reconfigured approach to South Florida’s water policy. First authorized by Congress in 1948, the C&SF today provides fresh water and flood protection to nearly 6 million people in a 16-county region.

    What is the Re-Study? The Central and Southern Florida Comprehensive Review Study ("Re-Study") is a review of the Central and Southern Florida Project (C&SF) that recommends a dramatically reconfigured approach to South Florida’s water policy. First authorized by Congress in 1948, the C&SF today provides fresh water and flood protection to nearly 6 million people in a 16-county region. Although the C&SF has provided water for urban and agricultural uses since its inception, the resulting growth and development have brought about extensive damage to the unique environment of South Florida.

    These self-interested advocates insist that a project that has been called the largest environmental project "in the history of the planet," must be done their way: it must be a comprehensive project totally defined and implemented by them — nothing else will do.

    The authors of the Re-Study — the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) — claim a new approach is needed to ensure safe, plentiful water supplies for South Floridians, and to restore the Everglades to its pristine condition. However, even they admit the recommended plan is both highly speculative and fraught with uncertainties, and make no guarantees the project will even succeed.

    Unfit to drink. At its core, the Re-Study calls for dismantling much of the C&SF project — in other words, dismantling South Florida’s water delivery system. The current network of more than 1,000 miles of canals and levees, 25 major pumping stations, about 2,200 water control structures, and approximately 864,640 acres of water conservation areas would be reconfigured so that greater volumes of water could be diverted into the Everglades.

    Unfortunately, this is the same system that provides the nearly 6 million men, women, and children of South Florida with safe and plentiful water. In place of the existing system, the Re-Study relies primarily on aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells, which use high-energy pumps to push purified storm water deep underground into a stratum of water-bearing rock for storage and later recovery.

    However, ASR is a vastly expensive technology that remains unproven in the unique geology of South Florida and on the scale proposed in the Re-Study. The authors of the Re-Study themselves admit this.1 The principal danger with this method of water storage is the intrusion of elements such as brine and silt. With its reliance on as many as 300 ASR wells, the Re-Study could render much of the planned water supply undrinkable.

    Soaring costs. Another major problem with the Re-Study is its massive, open-ended cost. Originally, the cost of the Re-Study was estimated at $1 billion. This soon rose to $3 billion, then $5 billion. The Corps now estimates the project will cost $7.8 billion, but the real figure is closer to $11 billion. Where the cost of the Re-Study is concerned, there is literally no end in sight.

    New taxes. Re-Study funding is based on a 50-50 cost share between the federal government and, presumably, the people of South Florida. The size of the project requires that district residents pay higher taxes and/or water bills — $120 more per household, per year, according to one study.2 State approval for the project will be given by the "local sponsor" — namely, the SFWMD. The board of this agency is comprised of nine members appointed by the governor to four-year terms, meaning that nine un-elected officials could obligate state taxpayers to billions of dollars in government spending.

    By a unanimous vote of the Florida legislature, a bill was passed in the 1999 session that required the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to approve Re-Study components before they are sent to Congress for authorization. Although this form of oversight is a promising start, full oversight by the Florida legislature remains out of reach, which leaves SFWMD great latitude in implementing the Re-Study.

    "Public" works without the people. Although touted as a "public works" project, funding for the Re-Study is markedly disproportionate. According to the Corps of Engineers, 93 percent of Re-Study funding is designed to benefit the "environment," while only 6 percent of the funds will be used to ensure the safety and reliability of the human water supply.3

    Is the Re-Study needed? The availability of such a large pot of money unencumbered by the demands of public accountability has already created momentum among bureaucracies and special interest groups to push the project through regardless of necessity or practicality. The Re-Study, these self-interested advocates claim, is the sole solution to all of South Florida’s environmental woes. They insist that a project that has been called the "largest" environmental project "in the history of the planet," must be done their way: it must be a comprehensive project totally defined and implemented by them — nothing else will do.

    But legislation has already been passed to address many of the environmental challenges the Re-Study is intended to solve. The 1989 Everglades National Park Protection and Expansion Act and the 1994 Everglades Forever Act include measures intended to increase both the amount and the quality of water flowing into the Everglades. Scientists at Everglades National Park have raised concerns that the Re-Study may interfere with these projects.4

    If these statutes were allowed to fulfill their objectives, the Re-Study may be unnecessary. As for providing additional water for the people of South Florida, it must be remembered that the current system of water delivery works. Florida law also prohibits development and population growth without the concomitant enhancement of public utility infrastructure.

    An $11 billion gamble. If implemented, the Re-Study could actually jeopardize South Florida’s water — taking away the present inexpensive and stable supply upon which people depend and replacing it with expensive water from highly suspect sources. Indeed, the uncertainties associated with ASR technology demand that its safety and reliability be demonstrated on the scale required by the Re-Study before the project is approved and implemented.

    The Re-Study also has become a costly enterprise captive to special interest demands and bureaucratic momentum — and may be wholly unnecessary. Less costly and more efficient solutions to the twin problems of providing safe drinking water for a growing population and restoring the Everglades are available, but certain government agencies and the environmentalist "Everglades industry" have put maximum effort into blocking such plans. The protection and restoration of the unique environment of the Everglades is something all Americans support. However, the Re-Study in its present form is the wrong approach.

    1Central and Southern Florida Project Comprehensive Review Study, Draft Integrated Feasibility Report and Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement Summary, p. xi, October 1998.

    2"The High Cost of the Florida Restudy: Impact Of Restudy Funding on South Florida," WEFA Strategic Consulting, October 1998.

    3"Economic Impacts of Alternative Restoration Plans," Jacksonville District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, June 1998.

    4"Comments of Everglades National Park on the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and Alternative D13R," Everglades National Park, February 1999.