President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed a wide-ranging bill to improve the nation's water infrastructure, including a Florida project intended to reduce toxic algae blooms that have devastated coastal marine life and emptied beaches.
The new law will help create a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee designed to filter out toxins that contribute to harmful algae blooms that have killed turtles, fish and other marine life — even manatees — and have ravaged South Florida's tourism-driven economy.
The America's Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 authorizes more than $6 billion in spending over 10 years for projects nationwide, including the $1.3 billion Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir. The law also boosts projects to restore Gulf Coast wetlands damaged by Hurricane Harvey and improve harbors in Seattle, Savannah, Georgia, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The law also sets up a new framework intended to increase local input on large water projects run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Congress approved the bill with just one dissenting vote, by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. Lee said the measure spends federal dollars on a series of local projects that should be funded and maintained by state and local governments.
Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the new law helps the economy, cuts red tape and improves aging drinking water systems in communities such as Flint, Mich.
Just as important, the law demonstrates that lawmakers from both parties and all regions can join together for projects to improve infrastructure, Barrasso said.
"It doesn't get a lot of press — conflict is what gets covered — but this is a good, solid, major piece of infrastructure legislation," he said in an interview. The next step is an infrastructure bill to improve roads and bridges, Barrasso said, acknowledging that such a bill was unlikely before the next session of Congress.
Trump said during a White House ceremony that he pledged to fix the nation's crumbling infrastructure during the campaign and "today we're taking another major step toward that goal."
"After years of rebuilding other nations, we are finally rebuilding our nation," Trump said.
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who is locked in a close re-election fight with Republican Gov. Rick Scott, hailed the water bill. Nelson praised Republican Sen. Marco Rubio for working with him to advance the Everglades project.
"This reservoir is particularly important right now to help mitigate the toxic algae crisis that's sweeping the state, but it's also critical for our broader Everglades restoration effort," Nelson said.
Rubio said on Twitter he was glad Trump signed the legislation, which also was pushed by Florida Republican Rep. Brian Mast.
"This is an important step toward solving Florida's water challenges," Rubio said.
Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the nonprofit Everglades Foundation, said approval of the reservoir project is almost two decades late. He urged the Army Corps of Engineers to build the project in four years — not 10 or 15 years, as some have speculated.
"Florida's estuaries, coastlines and America's Everglades are imperiled, and the people of Florida cannot afford to wait," Eikenberg said.