Does SFWMD have enough public land for restoration?

OKEECHOBEE — Does the state need to buy more land for Everglades restoration?

Senator Joe Negron’s plan for the state to buy another 60,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee for more water storage continues to draw opposition from area officials who say the state already owns plenty of land, and they don’t want more property taken off their tax rolls.

The bill specifies: “requiring the South Florida Water Management District to seek proposals from willing sellers of property within the Everglades Agricultural Area for land that is suitable for the reservoir project.”

“There are better ways to spend $2.5 billion for water policy in the state of Florida and Everglades restoration. One of the problems with the history of restoration over the past several decades has been that every time there is a new president or a new election of most anyone, everybody wants to change up the plan of work because they want credit for the ground breaking instead of the ribbon cutting,” stated Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam.

The $2.4 billion “buy the land” plan, promoted by the Everglades Foundation and endorsed by Florida Audubon, has also drawn criticism from other state officials.

“My great concern is that North Florida and North Central Florida are already derelict in receiving funds that is shared by the state for the environment. The notion of sending billions of dollars to an unproven land-grab in South Florida, for potentially dubious results, continues to leave the rest of Florida alone,” commented Representative Jay Fant (R-Jacksonville).

“I think we need to look at the dikes, we also need to look at a solution north of the lake. That’s where we have to pay attention right now. We have Speaker (Richard) Corcoran who says no bonding. We have to look at that in a fiscally responsible perspective,” said House Minority Leader Janet Cruz (D-Tampa).

Instead of buying more land, South Florida Water Management director Peter Antonacci has encouraged the state to use available funds to build water storage and water treatment projects on land the district already controls north and south of the lake. SFWMD owns nearly 1.5 million acres in South Florida.

Many water storage and treatment projects are already planned and are waiting for funding. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, approved in 2000, was originally envisioned as a 30-year plan comprising 68 projects, funded 50-50 by a state and federal partnership. But more than halfway into that original time line, less than 20 percent of the funding has been allocated.

At the Jan. 25 Florida Senate Appropriations sub-committee hearing, Tammy Jackson Moore, of Guardians of the Glades, said Senator Negron’s plan for the state to buy another 60,000 acres of EAA land would mean the closure of another sugar mill, which would be devastating to the economy of the small towns in the EAA.

“Over the past 20 years, the Glades has given up 100,000 acres (of farm land in the EAA) and in doing so have closed three sugar mills,” she said.

How much land is in the EAA?

The Everglades Agricultural Area is South of Lake Okeechobee and includes about 27 percent of the historic Florida Everglades. The EAA is just north of Water Conservation Area 3. The eastern boundary is the L-8 Canal. The western boundary is along the L-1, L-2 and L-3 levees. The EAA covers more than 700,000 acres.

Close to the lake there are towns such as Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee within the EAA.

The EAA was designated for agricultural use by the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project in 1948. That same flood protection and drainage project set aside about 16 percent of the historic Everglades for urban development on the east coast. A levee running down the length of the coastal area from Lake Okeechobee past Miami was included in the C&SF plan to protect the cities on the east coast from flooding from the remainder of the Everglades.

Land in public ownership

About a fourth of the land in the EAA is already in public ownership.
• The South Florida Management District owns 97,223 acres.
• The State of Florida Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund controls 79,710 acres.
• The U.S. Government owns 5,179 acres.
• The City of South Bay owns 130 acres.
• The City of Belle Glade owns 338 acres.
• The Palm Beach County Solid Waste Authority owns 1,626 acres.
• Palm Beach County owns 697 acres.
• Palm Beach County School Board owns 396 acres.

Agriculture land

Both Hendry and Palm Beach Counties have some agricultural land inside the EAA as well as agricultural land that is not part of the EAA. Gene McAvoy said most of the Hendry County farms are not in the EAA; Most of the EAA is in Palm Beach County.

According to the most recent U.S.D.A. Agricultural Census (2012), Hendry County has 79,624 acres in sugar cane and 11,234 acres in vegetable farms.

Palm Beach County has 299,016 acres in sugar cane, 60,762 acres in vegetables; 22,918 acres in sweet corn; and 15,007 acres in sod farms, according to USDA.

Also, since crop rotation is used to benefit the soil, there is some variety in the land use. What is grown on a particular field may change from one year to the next. For example, after harvesting, a field that was used for sugar cane might be flooded and planted with rice.

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