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COLLIER COUNTY — Optimism soared Thursday morning — even if the temperatures did not — at a ceremony in rural Collier County marking a milestone in Everglades restoration.
More than 200 state and federal officials and environmental advocates bundled up against the cold beneath a tent on the banks of a canal in the Picayune Strand State Forest to celebrate the start of federal work on a project to restore natural water flows to 55,000 acres south of Interstate 75.
The project, part of a decade-old Everglades restoration plan, is the first to break ground and the first to get federal money under the 2000 state-federal agreement.
“Key to all this is keeping the momentum,” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers commander Col. Al Pantano told the crowd.
The $53 million job will build the first of three pump stations planned along canals that were dug in the 1970s for a failed housing development.
The pumps will maintain an existing level of flood control for the burgeoning subdivision north of I-75 after 40 miles of canals are plugged and 260 roads removed south of the pumps.
Getting the water right will improve habitat for the endangered Florida panther, provide more places for wading birds to forage and reduce harmful discharges into the Ten Thousand Islands, scientists said.
“We’re going to get this asphalt out of here and re-wild this place,” Pantano said.
In all, the restoration is expected to take until 2017 to complete and cost $435 million, including $200 million already spent on an epic buyout of 19,000 lot owners worldwide.
Getting the rest of the money is going to be a lot easier than getting the money that allowed the work to start, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said.
The federal economic stimulus package included $40 million for the restoration, which will put people back to work, Nelson said.
Jim’s Trucking owner Jim Houghton, who attended Thursday’s event from Port Charlotte, said he hopes to be one of them.
“We’re here to see if we can get some work out of it and be part of a historic project,” he said.
Nelson, D-Fla., said economic times are tough, but it won’t stop the money coming for Picayune Strand.
“We’re not going to get something half done,” Nelson said. “We’re beginning to see the fruits of our labors.”
Thursday’s ceremony comes between two other Everglades groundbreakings — last month on a project to raise a mile-long segment of the Tamiami Trail outside Miami and later this month on a project to reroute water from a 20-mile canal that dumps into Florida Bay.
The start of work on three Everglades projects in a matter of months is good public relations for the push to restore the River of Grass, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, told the crowd.
“This helps us show our colleagues around the country that we’re united and we’re not going to be stopped,” he said.
Breaking ground on the Picayune Strand project represents the realization of an “improbable moment,” Assistant Interior Secretary Tom Strickland said.
“It’s an astonishing undertaking,” he said. “It’s breathtaking and it’s happening.”
Strickland called Everglades restoration the Interior Department’s “No. 1 priority.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Sam Hamilton urged advocates to “keep the pressure on.”
“We’re going to keep the pedal to the metal,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Sam Hamilton said.
Some would like to see the Picayune Strand project stopped in its tracks.
A half-dozen critics of the restoration huddled in the morning chill at the entrance to the state forest in protest.
“Every time the government tries to fix something, it always turns out worse,” said camper Ted Richards, 70.
They said Picayune Strand is fine just the way it is and that the project is only masquerading as restoration.
Fishing spots will be ruined and wildlife will be chased away by the massive replumbing project, they said.
The state forest is big enough for construction crews and for wildlife, Division of Forestry resource administrator Kevin Podkowka said.
“It would be foolish to think there’s going to be no disruption,” Podkowka said, “but it’s going to be minimal disruption to the wildlife there.”
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats/.