South Florida Ecosystem:

Restoration Is Moving Forward but Is Facing Significant Delays, Implementation Challenges, and Rising Costs

GAO-07-520: Published: May 31, 2007. Publicly Released: Jul 2, 2007.

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The South Florida ecosystem covers about 18,000 square miles and is home to the Everglades, a national resource. Over the past 100 years, efforts to manage the flow of water through the ecosystem have jeopardized its health. In 2000, a strategy to restore the ecosystem was set; restoration was expected to take at least 40 years and cost $15.4 billion. The restoration comprises hundreds of projects, including 60 key projects known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), to be undertaken by a partnership of federal, state, local, and tribal governments. Given the size and complexity of the restoration, GAO was asked to report on the (1) status of project implementation and expected benefits, (2) factors that determine project sequencing, (3) amount of funding provided for the effort and extent that costs have increased, and (4) primary mathematical models that guide the restoration.

While many of the restoration effort's 222 projects have been completed or are ongoing, a core set of projects that are critical to the success of the restoration are behind schedule or not yet started. Specifically, 43 projects have been completed, 107 are being implemented, and 72 are in design, in planning, or are not yet started. The completed projects will provide improved water quality and additional habitat for wildlife, and the ongoing projects will also help restore wildlife habitat and improve water flow within the ecosystem. However, the projects most critical to the restoration's overall success--the CERP projects--are among those that are currently being designed, planned, or have not yet been started. Some of these projects are behind schedule by up to 6 years. Despite project delays, officials believe that significant progress has been made in acquiring land, constructing water quality projects, and restoring a natural water flow to the Kissimmee River--the headwater of the ecosystem. In addition, many of the policies, strategies, and agreements required to guide the restoration in the future are now in place. To help provide further momentum to the restoration, Florida recently began expediting the design and construction of eight key projects, with the hope that they would immediately benefit the environment, enhance flood control, and increase water supply. There are no overarching sequencing criteria that restoration officials use when making implementation decisions for all 222 projects that make up the restoration effort. Instead, decisions for 162 projects are driven largely by the availability of funds. For the remaining 60 projects--which are among the most critical to the success of the restoration effort--the Corps of Engineers and the Congress established criteria to ensure the goals and purposes of CERP are achieved. However, the sequencing plan developed for these projects in 2005 is not consistent with the criteria established by the Corps. Therefore, there is little assurance that the plan will be effective. From fiscal years 1999 through 2006, the federal government contributed $2.3 billion, and Florida contributed $4.8 billion, for a total of about $7.1 billion for the restoration. However, CERP funding was about $1.2 billion short of the funds originally projected for this period. In addition, the total estimated costs for the restoration have increased by 28 percent--from $15.4 billion in 2000 to at least $19.7 billion in 2006. More importantly, these cost estimates do not represent the true costs for the overall restoration effort because they do not include all cost components for a number of projects. There are 27 primary mathematical models that guide the restoration effort. These include (1) hydrological, (2) water quality, and (3) ecological models. Although 21 of the 27 models are able to interface with other models and provide a more comprehensive pictureof the impact of restoration efforts on the ecosystem, many agency officials stated that additional interfaces are needed. Because coordinating the development of these interfaces is resource intensive, it has been a low priority for the agencies.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Corps has developed and continues to refine an Integrated Delivery Schedule (IDS) that serves as its new project sequencing plan. The development of the IDS involved nearly 2 years of information-gathering through interagency and public collaboration. As part of this effort, the Corps and other key restoration stakeholders established guiding principles for the IDS that provided an improved framework for project sequencing decisions. These guiding principles include the following features, among others: (1) The IDS should include all projects related to the Everglades, including both state and federal initiatives. (2) Project and component interdependencies should drive the sequencing order for constructing projects. (3) Projects should be implemented in a sequence that achieves restoration objectives at the earliest practicable time, consistent with funding constraints. (4) As appropriate, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan's (CERP) agreed-upon interim goals and targets should be used to measure restoration progress. The resulting IDS, which was approved in 2008 by the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, provides the comprehensive sequencing and schedule of construction for CERP and other key projects in the South Florida ecosystem restoration and forecasts federal funding requirements through the year 2020. According to Corps officials, minor changes have been made to the approved IDS through close coordination with various stakeholder groups, and future changes will be made to the schedule in consultation with restoration participants as sequencing, funding, and other factors warrant.

    Recommendation: Because the correct sequencing of CERP projects is essential to the overall success of the restoration effort, the Secretary of the Army should direct the Corps of Engineers (Corps) to obtain the key data that are needed to ensure that all required sequencing factors are appropriately considered when deciding which projects to implement. Once this information is available, the Corps should comprehensively reassess its sequencing decisions to ensure that CERP projects have been appropriately sequenced to maximize the achievement of restoration goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense: Department of the Army

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Interior has taken a number of steps to facilitate the coordination of modeling efforts in its role as chair of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. Interior directed the Task Force's Science Coordination Group (SCG) to collaborate with the restoration's participating agencies and with the Interagency Modeling Center (IMC), which focuses on a key subset of restoration projects that form the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. Interior has also promoted integration of the IMC's efforts with the department's existing multi-agency program, known as Joint Ecosystem Modeling, which coordinates ecological modeling activities across the restoration initiative. These integration efforts have made key ecological models available for comparisons of alternative restoration scenarios. In addition, Interior coordinated formal and informal dialogue regarding modeling at the 2008 Greater Everglades Ecosystem Restoration Conference. At the conference, experts identified the need for an inventory and assessment of the state of ecological and hydrological modeling in preparation for a related workshop on modeling coordination. In April 2009 the SCG hosted this interdisciplinary workshop in part to address GAO and National Research Council recommendations; it opened with a discussion of model interfaces and a recap of GAO's recommendation on the subject. Moreover, one point of emphasis from the workshop was the need to continue to coordinate and integrate ecological and hydrological models for future restoration planning. According to a senior SCG member, this continuing effort has given restoration managers more useful information for decisionmaking.

    Recommendation: Given the importance of modeling and interfaces to managing the restoration effort, the Secretary of the Interior, as chair of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, should take the lead on helping participating agencies better coordinate their efforts to develop models and their interfaces.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior


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