JACKSONVILLE – About 200 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers employees in Florida have been furloughed in the federal government shutdown, including those working on an Everglades restoration project with an imminent deadline, a corps official said today.
Construction and water management projects continue, but the corps’ parks and campgrounds have been closed and work on the Central Everglades Planning Project has been suspended, said Col. Alan Dodd, commander of the corps’ Jacksonville district.
Corps employees had been compiling public comments on the Everglades project. The public comment period was scheduled to end Oct. 15, and then the corps would have 30 days to review those comments and make a final report on the project.
Input from other federal agencies also is required for the project to move forward, but those agencies also are shut down. It’s unclear whether the project will meet its year-end deadline for inclusion in a funding bill.
“We cannot make that determination until we get everybody back to work,” Dodd said.
If the project doesn’t make it into the pending Water Resources Development Act by the end of this year, it could wait up to seven years for congressional authorization.
Employees in the corps’ regulatory office and engineers planning future projects may be furloughed next, if available funding runs out before the shutdown ends, Dodd said.
Corps officials announced Tuesday that they were suspending permits issued to the state and local governments for seawall construction and repairs, canal maintenance and other shoreline projects. The suspension affects projects in Cape Coral and Miami-Dade County. Officials say that because of the shutdown, the corps can’t provide proper oversight or consult with other federal agencies to ensure compliance with U.S. environmental laws.
Meanwhile, the corps is continuing to release water from Lake Okeechobee, which has been drenched with above-average rainfall since the beginning of October, said Lt. Col. Thomas Greco.
The corps has been discharging freshwater from the lake into the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie estuary to relieve pressure on its aging earthen dike. Critics say heavy freshwater discharges since the beginning of the summer have exacerbated environmental problems in those ecosystems.
Water levels in the lake Wednesday were at 15.83 feet. The corps aims to keep that level between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet.
High lake levels significantly increase the risk of leaks or a breach in the dike. Lake levels peaked Aug. 10 at 16.05 feet.