SOUTH BAY, Fla. - Out here in western Palm Beach County, Lake Okeechobee meets vestiges of the Florida Everglades and, more significantly, a vast sugar growing area that encompasses hundreds of square miles. Over the years, the Everglades has shrunk into a corner of the state and the sugar region has grown, with detrimental effects on both water quality and the health of the huge swamp.
In his new budget, President Donald Trump has proposed $250 million for a variety of Everglades restoration projects, many of which have been on the drawing board for decades. Florida is critical for Trump’sreelection bid and the state’s voters are well aware of the major environmental problems facing it, including climate change and water quality issues.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican who has become a staunch Trump ally, said the boost in funding will keep many projects on track after years of fits and starts. Some involve the construction of reservoirs to act as filters that would keep out harmful nutrients and pollutants; others would deal with the quality and quantity of water flowing south through Everglades NationalPark into Florida Bay.
This not only helps the unique ecosystem of the Everglades - home to rare species like the Florida panther and the ghost orchid - but also the drinking water that millions of South Florida residents rely upon.
“None of this will happen overnight, but with our recent progress, we’re finally on a path to completion within our lifetimes, and I will not let us slide back into complacency,” Rubio, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, wrote in a recent opinion piece in the Tampa Bay Times. “The restoration of our Everglades is too important to leave unfinished.”
The president's total budget of $4.8 trillion must be approved by Congress, which often makes numerous changes to any president's spending plan.
Still, despite the increase in proposed funding - $50 million over the previous year, many Democrats and environmental groups say the Trump administration wants to cut so many other key programs at the Environmental Protection Agency, Interior Department and elsewhere that the Everglades money amounts to window dressing.
“It really speaks volumes as to the misplaced priorities of Republicans at the federal level,” said Democratic state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez of Miami, who wears rain boots at the state Capitol to underscore the dangers of climate change. "This is not a budget that in any way reflects the reality that Floridians face.”
The National Parks Conservation Association said the budget proposal would carve $587 million out of the National Park Service and cut $2.4 billion from the EPA.
“Every American should be offended by how little the administration has prioritized our national parks and public lands," said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association.
Other environmental groups praised the Trump budget on the Everglades projects, noting that it is a record federal amount that could make a real difference in restoring much of the wetlands known as the “River of Grass.” Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and many state legislative leaders also have been supportive of additional money for the Everglades.
“This is a defining moment for Everglades restoration,” said Celeste De Palma, director of Everglades policy for Audubon Florida. “Let’s make this the decade of America’s Everglades by completing projects that rehydrate the River of Grass, reduce harm to our coastal estuaries, protect South Florida’s communities, and bring back our birds.”
Promises and proposals to restore the Everglades have been made for decades. Various factors contribute to its problems, including fertilizer runoff from sugar cane and other farm fields, as well as urban sprawl that pours assorted pollutants into the region.
Years ago, a series of canals were built to divert water and allow for development in South Florida. Lake Okeechobee also contains pollutants that when sent to the coasts via two main rivers cause blue-green algae blooms and may contribute to red tide outbreaks that kill sea life and can cause health issues in people.
The question is whether this latest surge in funding will result in real change, said state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from the Orlando area.
“It definitely seems like a good political headline," Eskamani said. "We really have to continue to keep the pressure up versus just rhetoric for election season.”