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COLLIER COUNTY — Interior Secretary Ken Salazar rallied Everglades restoration workers Friday at a groundbreaking ceremony for a piece of the massive effort in rural Collier County.
The ceremony deep in the Picayune Strand State Forest between U.S. 41 and Interstate 75 marked the start of work on a $79 million pump station along the Faka Union Canal.
The pump is the largest of three that are part of a plan to return natural water flows to 55,000 acres of the forest where developers once planned a huge subdivision. The restoration also will tear out 260 miles of roads and plug 48 miles of canals.
Speaking to a crowd of about 150, mostly scientists, planners and engineers at state and federal agencies guiding Everglades restoration, Salazar said there is no greater ecosystem restoration project in the world. He called it “the great example.”
“We cannot afford to fail,” he said. “This is one where we will succeed.”
Salazar cited more than $200 million President Obama included in his budget proposal this week for Everglades restoration.
“I will speak to all of you very bluntly,” Salazar said. “You have the commitment of the President of the United States to Everglades restoration.”
He also dipped into Florida politics and what he called a “new reality” with new Gov. Rick Scott, who is proposing deep cuts to Florida’s budget.
He said now is the time for Everglades boosters to “make sure your voices are heard loud and clear.”
In remarks after the ceremony, Salazar said he has spoken with friends of Scott who are talking to the governor about support for Everglades restoration.
Scott’s budget proposal, released earlier this month, sets aside $17 million for Everglades restoration next year, down from $50 million this year and down from peak funding levels of $200 million in 2002 and 2006.
“I’m hopeful that the governor will come on board with us and continue the partnership we’ve had with previous governors and the state of Florida,” Salazar said.
In 2003, then- Gov. Jeb Bush donned a hard hat and grabbed a shovel to break ground on an initial phase of the Picayune Strand project, filling in two miles of the Prairie Canal.
The work moved ahead only with state money as federal money dried up and was the only work done at Picayune Strand until 2010.
That’s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began construction of the Merritt Canal pump station. That work still is underway. The $53 million job represented the first time federal money had been put into what was to be a 50-50 state-federal partnership for Everglades restoration that dates to 2000.
In all, the Picayune Strand project is estimated to take until 2017 to finish and cost $435 million, including $250 million already spent to buy 19,000 lots from owners around the world.
Friday’s celebration played out in what used to be the front yard of homesteader Jesse Hardy, whose refusal to sell his land to the state of Florida for the restoration project made him a hero to property rights advocates. He eventually took almost $5 million for his 160 acres.
Planning for Picayune Strand restoration has been ongoing since 1974 and has faced skepticism from Golden Gate Estates residents fearful the project would flood their homes north of I-75.
Although public education has allayed some of that fear, people still are skeptical, Golden Gate Estates Civic Association secretary Tim Nance said.
“I think it’s an exciting project,” Nance said. “It’s good to see some of our tax money coming back to Collier County.”
After a bus tour of the restoration project after the ceremony, Florida Wildlife Federation field representative Nancy Payton said it is rewarding to see crews making progress.
“There’s dirt piled everywhere and roads coming out,” she said. “I was blown away.”
As he drove the dirt and limerock roads on the way to Friday’s ceremony, the man who leads the Corps of Engineers district overseeing Everglades restoration couldn’t help but chuckle, he said.
Every so often, he noticed the white signs noting “Restoration in Progress.”
“I like that sign,” said Jacksonville District Commander Col. Al Pantano. “We’re going to have to copy that and use it here and there.”
Connect with Eric Staats at www.naplesnews.com/staff/eric_staats