September 24, 2020

Opening Remarks from Chairs DeFazio and Napolitano and Vice Chair Mucarsel-Powell During Subcommittee Hearing on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and Water Management in Florida

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Chair of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment Grace F. Napolitano (D-CA), and Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D-FL) during today’s hearing titled, “The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan and Water Management in Florida.”

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Chairwoman Napolitano, for convening today’s hearing on Florida water. I would also like to recognize Subcommittee Vice Chair Mucarsel-Powell’s tireless work and leadership on ecological restoration of the Everglades and the Florida Bay.

Congress established the Everglades National Park in 1934, which largely encompasses the South Florida ecosystem. It was clear then as it is now that few other places in the country and in the world could rival the Everglades in its ecological diversity and natural splendor. Tribal communities, like the Miccosukee Tribe and the Seminole Tribe have called this region home for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

It remains one of the largest wetlands in the world, even at half of its historical size. But decades of land use changes and developments have imperiled the fragile landscape, and Congress acted to restore the Everglades.

Everglades restoration is an important issue to this Committee, and something I spent countless hours discussing as a Member of the Natural Resources Committee. Those discussions cleared the way for the critical Modified Water Deliveries Project—a partnership between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the U.S. Department of the Interior which allowed for more water to move from Lake Okeechobee south to the Everglades National Park. The “Mod Waters” project also required raising the Tamiami trail and other efforts to restore the historic “River of Grass.”

But these projects only matter if water, and clean water, flows from Lake Okeechobee through projects authorized as part of the Corps and the State of Florida’s Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). Here we are, 20 years in and much more needs to be done.

H.R. 7575, the Water Resources Development Act of 2020, continues the work on Florida water and in restoring the Everglades, with several CERP projects included in the legislation. I am proud of the bipartisan work on WRDA 2020, which was unanimously approved by the House at the end of July.

Ranking Member Graves and I are actively working with our colleagues in the Senate on a path forward on enactment of this important legislation. I remain committed to the enactment of WRDA on a two-year cycle and look forward to resolving our differences with the Senate as soon as possible.

Chair Napolitano:

As many Floridians already know, the word “Okeechobee” in the Seminole language means “Big Water.”  Today we will be discussing the progress that has been made with federal, state, local, and non-governmental partners in the restoration of one of our national ecological treasures, the Florida Everglades, since enactment of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program in 2000. 

We will hear from Members and stakeholders on what has been accomplished and what is left to do.  Key to this discussion, and at the heart of this ecosystem and project, is water flows into and out of Lake Okeechobee. 

As a Californian, I am well aware of the challenges of managing a water system for important but sometimes conflicting demands.  Like Florida, California has wet seasons and dry seasons, and the management of water, including its timing, quantity, and quality is important to the health of the ecosystem, and the economy. 

In meeting their often-competing responsibilities for water management in the State of Florida, the Army Corps of Engineers must balance the flood control, environmental restoration, water supply, and other authorized purposes during both wet and dry seasons. 

When faced with too much water, the Corps seeks to manage the system to avoid flood events that would impact Florida communities by releasing water east and west from Lake Okeechobee, because the mechanisms to hold or send more water south, is incomplete.  This can lead to challenges like harmful algal blooms in the St. Lucie Canal, or to avoid dumping too much water to meet its water supply obligations within the State.

Dry events can lead to not enough water heading south, including to the Everglades National Park and the Florida Bay. Five years ago, an extremely dry season and less water south contributed to the massive 40,000-acre sea grass die off in the Florida Bay. The system is only now rebounding after five years.

Vice Chair Mucarsel-Powell is an already proven and tireless leader for the restoration of the Everglades and for the health of the Florida Bay.  Thank you, Debbie for hosting us last year in Islamorada, where we were able to tour and see firsthand the work that has been done in the Everglades System.

Twenty years ago, this Committee gave the Corps a massive responsibility to try and restore the historic “River of Grass” that stretched from Lake Okeechobee to the southern tip of the State, and to do so within the context of a modern, economically-vibrant, and diverse State of Florida. 

There have been many successes, and a few setbacks along the way, but the goal of a comprehensive restoration of the Florida Everglades remains as important to the State as it ever has been. Today’s conversation looks at this history, where things have gone well, and the work that remains. We must continue to look for solutions to protect this national ecological treasure.

Thank you to our witnesses for being here today, albeit virtually, on this very important issue.  I look forward to your testimony. 

Vice Chair Mucarsel-Powell:

I’d like to thank Chairman DeFazio, Subcommittee Chairwoman Napolitano, Ranking Members Graves, Subcommittee Ranking Member Westerman, and my fellow subcommittee members for holding this crucially important hearing today.

Everglades Restoration is the largest ecosystem restoration project in the world, and I cannot overstate its importance to South Florida. Not only does the Everglades ecosystem provide drinking water to 8 million Floridians – over a third of the state’s population, but it is the backbone of our economy in South Florida, and it’s an important weapon in our fight against climate change.

Restoring our Everglades to a condition that somewhat resembles its natural flow from 100 years ago is a monumental task that we’ve been working on for two decades now, and we have at least another decade to go.

The goal is to move more water south. Not east and west – where residents too often face harmful algal blooms – but south, where the water can flow naturally through vegetation and grasslands that clean the water and then enter Everglades National Park to keep our wetlands wet, and provide freshwater into Florida Bay.

I thank this Committee for its work to move this year’s Water Resources Development Act through the House. Not only does it authorize additional CERP projects, but it includes provisions I fought for which will expedite the competition of the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir, increase transparency regarding water flows, and help us in the fight against harmful algal blooms.

But we have so much more work to do, and we cannot wait another decade or more to see improvements in our ecosystem. I look forward to hearing our witnesses testify about the importance of moving water south, and how we can do so in a wholistic and efficient manner. I hope today’s discussion will shed some light on what else we can be doing to improve South Florida’s ecosystem so more Floridians can benefit from the work that has already been done, and we can maximize benefits in the years to come.