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Rubio Presses Zinke on Critical Everglades Restoration Funding
Washington, D.C. – At a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on the Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 budget for the Department of the Interior today, U.S. Senator Rubio (R-FL) pressed Secretary Ryan Zinke on insufficient federal funding levels for Everglades restoration projects. The administration’s FY19 budget calls for $118 million, even less than the $131 billion requested by the administration in FY18. Additionally, Rubio secured the Secretary’s support for his continued efforts to ensure that individual Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan projects are no longer delayed by requirements to secure Army Corps New Starts designations prior to initiating construction.
A rough transcript of their exchange at the hearing is below:
Rubio: Thank you very much. Thank you for being here, secretary. Thank you for coming down to Florida after the storm and going down to Flamingo and the Everglades with us. It’s a place I frequently fish off and we are making progress there. So, thank you for your visit. I do want to take an exception to something that was said here earlier. Complete untruth. Senator Merkley claimed that Oregon’s Coast was the most beautiful in the world and that is just not true because obviously Florida holds that distinction.
Zinke: I stay out of that.
Rubio: Yes sir I understand, but I needed to correct the record. I want to talk a little about the Everglades. Its restoration is the most ambitious. I think the most ambitious environmental restoration in the history of all mankind. You can make that argument. We’ve made real progress and we’re on the cusp now of making real advances. The completion of several important projects. So, the integrated delivery schedule for that restoration assumes federal contributions of $147 million dollars across the core and the Department of the Interior towards that restoration in fiscal year 2019. An average of $185 million from 2020 to 2030. This year the administration only budgeted $118 million after requesting $131 in fiscal year 2018. That is unfortunate, we are heading in the wrong direction and I hope that the budget does not reflect the administration’s commitment to the Everglades restoration.
My question for you and obviously for the administration, is this the direction were headed with the Everglades restoration because if it is I think it pretends poorly to the future of this project which is a critical national treasure not just to Florida but for the country.
Zinke: When I went down there, as you know, it remains a priority. I think it is as much a structural as it is funding. We talked about the way that the project is with it with the Army Corps of Engineers is rather than have approval of one project, each sub component have to be categorized as a new start and that itself lengthens the amount of time on these projects and doesn’t give the Army Corps of Engineers enough flexibility. So just throwing more money at it, I do not think is the solution. I think it is streamlining the process so we can make better decisions sooner so there’s not languish. There is no doubt in my mind that the health of the Everglades depends on the right plumbing of the water and that’s the priority and it will take a serious effort between all players and all stakeholders to prioritize the plumbing first because if we don’t get the plumbing right the rest of it will never ever be healthy.
Rubio: I think most would agree that we would want to have a more efficient way of getting approval on these projects and moving forward but it still gets back to the question of the total sum and I actually agree that in fact the longer we take to complete these projects that the more expensive they become. So, just going back to the total number. Why is the number in 2019 significantly less than it was in 2018? When we have won 31 and 18 and now the proposals for 118, is that a function of the projects that are ready that you think could be funded this year or what is behind the reduction. Since we know that in order to continue the pace on this project, to be able to truly say that were on pace, to do it we have to be near 14. It is not just throwing money that is what is budgeted at if it stays on schedule and for every year we fall off schedule the price tag may actually go up. What is the new number this year lower being than last year reflective of?
Zinke: I will work with you. I think some of it has to do with our ability to execute again because if we could work together to, it is not just a question of money, and we agree it is a priority. I’m committed to make it a priority with you, but we have to make it also structurally easier so when we have funds they actually go to moving the ball ahead we’re not getting far. I would contend we could double the money and we wouldn’t make double the amount of moving up the field is structurally we have to work together. On the 14th of June, I think we’re having the South Florida Ecosystem Task Force. I would invite you or a member of your staff to be a part of that and prioritize your efforts with it. Then we come to what we need, probably tweaks in the law a little to allow a prioritization and making sure we streamline and the money itself goes to bringing the ball up the field so to speak and getting things done rather than just continuing a bureaucracy. Because right now as you know, you follow this issue better than I think anybody is that, we are on pace never to get it done maybe quite frankly we need to shorten a time climb but we can do it. If we allow the right people the flexibility and the power to get it done without having to go through line by line by line and approval on each those lines if we do it as a system we can get this project done.
Rubio: I would say that I clearly am not a believer of just throwing money at things you know and in this particular case there are projects that are ready to go if the money were available we can move on it but the one thing I want to make clear because I do think you’ve touched upon something that a lot of people would agree with and I just want to leave it clear. It is your position that individual Everglades’ projects should not each be subject to New Starts designations, that we should be able to do things systemically.
Zinke: I do and there are some produce that actually are ahead of schedule so it’s not all doom and gloom. There is a trail system and there are some gates and stuff that are actually ahead of schedule so that is good.