MIAMI -- The next best hope for Florida's ailing Everglades may be a senator from Oklahoma who doesn't believe in climate change.
This week, Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe told the Miami Herald that fellow Sen. Marco Rubio had convinced him to back a suite of Everglades restoration projects expected to cost about $1.9 billion and aimed at stopping the kind of crisis that gripped South Florida over the winter when an El Niño dropped record rain. Inhofe, the powerful chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, notably cast the only vote against a master plan to fix the Everglades in 2000.
"Marco showed me this was different. And I wouldn't have gotten into it if Marco hadn't talked to me," he said. "When Marco said one out of three Floridians are affected, I thought that wasn't right."
Coming just days before the Florida primary with Rubio trailing Republican front-runner Donald Trump, the news could help Rubio's standing on the environment. Rubio has supported Everglades restoration work, but in his bid for president has given little priority to climate change and dire sea rise projections expected to dramatically change the shores and waters of his home state over the next century. Restoring the Everglades won't stop sea rise, but scientists say it could help the state stay dryer longer.
Inhofe, who believes climate change is a hoax, said he now intends to back the Everglades project Wednesday when his committee takes up the Water Resources Development Act, the tool for getting such massive projects ready for funding.
His change of heart came when Rubio explained the Comprehensive Everglades Planning Project contains specific fixes as opposed to the sweeping changes engineered in the broader Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, Inhofe said.
"Ten years ago was a different situation. We were getting into a long-term bill that addressed every acre of the Everglades. There's a lot of stuff that should have done by the stakeholders there, by the state, and they were not doing it," Inhofe said. "They were totally dependent on the federal government and that's not what we're supposed to be doing."
Rubio praised Inhofe's decision in a statement Thursday, saying it marks a critical step in overall restoration and moving water south.
"Nothing would be as impactful as finally getting this Everglades proposal done," he said. "This announcement is only the first step towards a long term solution, but I will continue to fight at the federal level to address this important issue to the people of Florida."
In 2000 when the broader Everglades restoration was approved, it was built around the regular approval of WRDA projects every two years. But after that first plan, approvals faltered. Other WRDA bills were not approved until 2007 and in 2014.
As a way to kick start work, Florida and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which share the work, came up with the Central Everglades Planning Project to focus on critical projects. The projects are designed to move more water south into Florida Bay, which has been suffering from decades of flood control that blocked the natural flow of water into sugar fields and communities south of Lake Okeechobee, and stop the kind of massive flushing into the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico when water gets too high.
Inhofe's decision came as a surprise to Everglades advocates who for more than a decade fought his staunch opposition.
"Wow," said Julie Hill-Gabriel, Audubon Florida's director of Everglades policy, who remembers the Everglades vote being "500 and something to one."
The decision, she said, also shows a shift in the Everglades restoration, from one championed mostly by Democrats.
"Clearly there's becoming a unified voice that this is urgent, urgent and there's every reason once we get it authorized to pull out all the stops to really get the construction done as quickly as possible," Hill-Gabriel said.
Having Inhofe's committee authorize the project means it clears a major hurdle. But when and how much money will flow for the project remains to be seen and will be decided by congressional appropriations committees. Inhofe said he expected any funding would likely be spread over the next 10 ten years.
"How much each year we won't know," Inhofe said, although he predicted work "will start off with a bang. You ought to be excited. It's a big deal."