U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney took a helicopter tour of the Everglades on Saturday with a California congressman considered key to making progress toward securing more federal funding for restoration projects.
Rooney, of Naples, said the purpose of the trip with fellow Republican Ken Calvert was to get the ball rolling on Everglades restoration projects funded through appropriations bills that must pass through a subcommittee. Calvert is a senior member of that subcommittee and chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.
At the Naples Municipal Airport after the tour Saturday afternoon, Rooney said Calvert is the man to help with the job.
"This is a huge opportunity for us to advance the ball and increase the awareness of our watershed problem by having the congressman invest the time to come down and look at it firsthand," Rooney said.
Calvert added: "I'm willing to work with Congressman Rooney to find out how effective we can be and to find out the best way we can get these projects done."
Rooney's focus has been on finishing projects already approved by the Army Corps of Engineers.
That is a departure from an approach advocated by Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and some Everglades advocates. They want to speed up a $2.4 billion plan to buy 60,000 acres for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. Negron is pushing a bill in Tallahassee this legislative session to borrow money to fund the state's share.
"There are several billions of dollars of uncompleted work on those projects that involve all portions of the (Lake Okeechobee) watershed," Rooney said. "We need to do all those things to help solve the problem."
Advocates of the reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee say it is needed to divert lake discharges into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. Such discharges have been blamed for contributing to blue-green algae blooms that have fouled downstream estuaries.
However, opponents say the reservoir's benefits are being oversold.
Rooney and Calvert are set to meet Sunday with Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, which supports Negron's plan.
Eikenberg said last week that Calvert's involvement in the restoration efforts is vital, considering his senior position in Congress.
"It's great that he's making the trip and seeing firsthand the investment he's been shepherding along as it relates to the bridging of the Tamiami Trail (U.S. 41) and overall Everglades restoration and the need to flow water into Everglades National Park," Eikenberg said. "It's a true testament to Rooney. To be able to bring Calvert, that's a feather to (Rooney's) cap."
Rooney recently joined the Congressional Everglades Caucus, aimed at helping restore the Everglades. All of Florida's members of Congress signed a letter asking President Donald Trump to support Everglades restoration funding in his fiscal 2017-18 budget.
In an initial budget blueprint released last week, Trump proposed $54 billion in federal cuts to increase the country's military defense. The Army Corps of Engineers, the federal partner with Florida on Everglades restoration, took a 16.3 percent cut, leaving a budget of $1 billion.
Rooney said he is in talks with the White House to discuss restoration plans in the near future.
The Everglades caucus letter cited Trump's promise at a campaign rally in October at the Collier County Fairgrounds to make Everglades restoration a priority.
"The Everglades ecosystem spans across 16 counties and 164 cities in Florida. It has a $2 trillion economic impact and 55 percent of the real estate value in the state of Florida is tied to it," the letter reads.
"However, the system is now less than half of its original size, and human impacts have degraded the quality of water.
"More than that, Lake Okeechobee now fills up six times faster than it can be drained, resulting in massive discharges into the surrounding watershed."