The great challenges faced in restoring the Everglades, top to bottom, are to store, treat and move water south into Everglades National Park without destroying Lake Okeechobee, and reducing dramatically the deleterious discharges east and west to the coast’s estuaries.
Increased flows of clean water are wanted and needed south in Everglades National Park and in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Florida and Biscayne Bays, and the Keys. How can we provide them? By significantly increasing water storage capacity throughout the greater Everglades and, in particular, expanding storage capacity south of the lake in the Everglades Agricultural Area.
The state has an option contract, negotiated and agreed to between former Gov. Charlie Crist and U.S. Sugar, to buy land south of the lake. That option expires in October. When U.S. Sugar signed the contract, it strongly and publicly advocated that the state purchase its lands south of Lake Okeechobee to store, treat and flow waters south. Exercising that critical purchase option now requires the strong support of Gov. Rick Scott, who already has called for spending $5 billion over the next 20 years on Everglades projects.
An overwhelming 75 percent of Florida voters approved Amendment 1, the text of which specifically called for buying lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). Adding an EAA reservoir would provide a lot more flexibility in managing water in ways that are compatible with Florida’s environment and economy, much of which is nature-based.
Initiating construction of the Caloosahatchee (C-43) and completing construction of the St. Lucie (C-44) reservoirs are critical in dealing with dry-season low water and drought and with high water and flooding in the rainy season.
If we do not now provide additional storage capacity south of Lake Okeechobee, then highly destructive discharges into the estuaries will continue. The Florida Wildlife Federation supports bonding Amendment 1 dollars, as well as using other available funding sources, to pay for the storage needed.
The Florida Wildlife Federation, joined by a large number of allies, asked the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District to take actions necessary to facilitate and complete the EAA land purchase. The board essentially responded with, “Yes, we need more storage, but we don’t have the money or political directive to do this. Go ask the Legislature and governor to make it their 2015 priority.”
Now we’re asking Floridians to do exactly that. Contact Scott, Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andrew Gardiner and your legislators. Ask them to support buying land in the EAA and to do it in this legislative session.
The expiring option is the only option on the table to reduce the amount, frequency and duration of destructive water discharges like those that occurred in 2013. It is our best opportunity to save our Everglades’ habitats south of the lake. Also, please remind them that when U.S. Sugar signed the contract, the corporation supported Florida’s purchase of these lands as critical for Everglades restoration.
A poignant reminder of the urgency is that during this dry season in South Florida, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is already discharging Lake Okeechobee water into the estuaries, lest rising water levels in the Lake Okeechobee threaten the integrity of the dike when the region moves into the wet season. A major new reservoir in the EAA near the lake will give future water managers safer, less destructive choices than they have available today.
Manley Fuller is president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, based in Tallahassee