Landowners question LOWRP plan

OKEECHOBEE — Glades County residents who own the land within the footprint of the tentatively selected Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan want assurances that the project will actually benefit Lake Okeechobee.

At the June 18 meeting with South Florida Water Management District Officials at Indian River State College, many expressed frustration with past dealings with the state and federal government. They also expressed concerns that the project may be detrimental to neighboring properties.

SFWMD already owns part of the land in the proposed project footprint of the wetlands attenuation area – a 12,500 acre L-shaped area which would provide shallow storage of 1 ft. to 4 ft. in depth. SFWMD also owns part of Paradise Run, where wetlands would be restored. Approximately 100 parcels ranging of varying sizes from a few acres to 1,800 acres are owned by 48 individuals and groups, according to SFWMD. The project footprint includes 15-20 structures including some homes, barns and out-buildings, according to Jennifer Leeds of SFWMD.

LOWRP map

Keith Pearce, the most outspoken property owner at the meeting, owns about 1,800 acres.

He said the project footprint includes all but about 100 acres of his land.

He said his family has ranched that area since the 1900s, running cattle there on open range before the lake was diked. Mr. Pearce said he is the fifth generation to run the ranch and he had planned to pass it on to his son.

Trading property is not a good option, he explained, because the SFWMD does not own any property “worth a third” of his land near the river and the lake. While the average cow/calf beef ranch operation in Florida needs about 5 to 10 acres per cow/calf pair, the lush grass growing on the former lake and river beds means he only needs about 3 acres to sustain a cow/calf pair, he explained.

“You are going to destroy some of the best agricultural land in this state,” he said.

Mr. Pearce said he does not think the project will hold water when the lake level drops because the water will move underground.

He said if they want to clean up the water entering the lake, they should clean it at the source of the problem — the orange groves and sod farms north along the Kissimmee River. He explained he has tests to prove that phosphorus levels leaving his cattle ranch are lower than the levels of the water entering it from the SFWMD canals.

“The system is broken,” he said. “We’ve been doing this for 22 years and we’ve got projects that have never been completed. We have seen places that have turned into jungles.

“We should have funding in place, appropriated and then at that point you start your research and do your homework and come to the landowners at that time to purchase it,” said Mr. Pearce. “Don’t leave us hanging out to dry.”

Brad Phares said his property is not in the footprint, but is concerned the project will “leak and seep.”

“If you think that is not going to be an issue for me and my family, we need to start rethinking everything,” he said. “I am not denying that we need something to address storage.

“Somewhere along the process, we are supposed to have a point where the geologists were going to come out and explain this,” he said. “There is a big difference between the ivory tower word of theory and boots on the ground where you’ve lived here all your life and you have seen what has happened,” he continued.

“The fluctuation in that lake draws water far further than anyone wants to admit,” he said.

“When the locks are open, surface water disappears at Buck Island Ranch. When the locks are closed, that water pipes back up,” he said.

Glades County Commissioner Tim Stanley asked about the frontage on State Road 78. He was assured that the project is set back a quarter of a mile and the property on the highway will remain in private ownership. Mr. Stanley said with Bass Pro taking over the Okee-Tantie Recreation Area, that property will be valuable to Glades County’s tax base.

“Before we close on anything I want to know that geotechnically we can use the property,” said SFWMD Governing Board member Brandon Tucker.

“We will make sure this is really going to work, not just come in and buy the property and 15 years later find out we’re not going to use it. We are going to make sure if we’re going to buy your land, we’re going to be able to use it for public benefit.”

Mr. Tucker asked land owners to allow SFWMD staff on their land for geotechnical evaluation.

“The best way to figure out where we are going is to let us on the property,” he said. “Let us figure out if this is going to work. If I find out today that half of that footprint is unusable, my opinion just changed.

“Let us on the property. Let us find out what is going on and then we can give you some straight, clear answers,” he said.

See LOWRP plan for details.  https://okeechobeenews.net/lake-okeechobee/wetlands-project-proposed-north-of-lake/

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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