Conservationists grill Caldwell over Amendment 1 fund appropriations
Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, and conservationists do not appear to see eye to eye on issues concerning land acquisition appropriations, ones that focus on water quality and a voter-approved constitutional amendment directing certain tax dollars be used for conservatory practices.
Many meeting participants made that known when Caldwell addressed the Responsible Growth Management Coalition during a “town hall meeting” at the Wa-Ke Hatchee Rec Center in Fort Myers Tuesday evening.
Caldwell believes in completing prioritized projects that have begun north of Lake Okeechobee and west of the taxed lake. One main project that is budgeted to be completed in 2018 is restoring the Kissimmee River.
“Eventually we are going to need southern storage. But, the much bigger crises are fixing the Kissimmee River and stopping the water from getting in the lake in the first place, so it is not piling up and has to be sent anywhere,” Caldwell said. “At the present time, the (South Florida Water Management) District and the Legislature are on the same page that we should finish the northern projects first and finish the CERP (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan) agreed-to projects, the C-43 and C-44 reservoirs.”
Conservationists argue that Lake O overflow water should be sent south, especially with the Everglades water level reported to be more than 18 inches lower than usual. Such obstructions involve development over the years and company-owned land like U.S. Sugar Corp.
Former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah, long-standing clean water activist and current coordinator of the Florida Coastal and Oceans Coalition, attended the event Tuesday and provided his own perspective. He questioned Caldwell on certain factors, called the practice of excessive harmful freshwater releases from Lake O into both the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers a “tremendous amount of mismanagement” and blamed Florida policy makers for rejecting the very intent of the voters to spend Amendment 1 money on the environmentally sensitive lands, particularly lands that can help restore the Everglades.
“The Legislature has decided to put all their marbles into the CERP basket and suggested that we ought to stay the course on what is already on the design board that needs to be built,” he said. “‘You have a legislature that is already firmly committed on moving forward on the CERP projects and is not going to address the issues in front you today.”
Judah also questioned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inability to look fully at a “spillway” to relieve pressure on the aging Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake O.
“It is interesting and surprising that the Corps of Engineers that has been involved in a lot of engineering projects throughout this country hasn’t looked at a spillway,” he said. “Everybody knows that one way to (handle) the sheer pressure, undermining and the integrity of a dike of a dam is to have a spillway, so that when you have high water you can allow it to spill over, drop the water level and reduce the pressure on the dike.”
Environmental group Earthjustice on behalf of three conservation groups filed a lawsuit on June 29 that contends state legislators “defied” Amendment 1 approved last fall. The action came just days after Florida legislators passed the state budget with only $55 million appropriated for major land acquisition efforts.
Back in November, voters approved the Florida’s Water & Land Legacy amendment, which earmarks 33 percent – or about $18 billion to $20 billion over the next 20 years – from a real estate stamp tax to help the state purchase lands for conservation and water quality. Many voters believed the intent of the amendment was to buy land south of Lake O.
There was an option to buy land from U.S. Sugar. Five years ago, “Big Sugar” agreed via a binding, signed contract to sell 46,800 acres of its land -26,000 of which is directly south of Lake O. On May 14, the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board voted to terminate that option after calling the issue “complicated” and that the potential purchase would involve a “complex appraisal” process.
Caldwell, who was attacked for taking campaign contributions from the U.S. Sugar during his first Republican primary, began the evening with a history lesson on the Everglades. After explaining how a contest helped drained Lake O and the southern Everglades of too much water in 1880, he spoke about the tropical storm events of 1926-28 causing high water again in the lake and resulting in the building of the dike. Caldwell said another rain event and flooding again occurred in 1947, but it had been 60-plus years since 2013’s major rain season.
Judah would rather look to the future and to the importance of Amendment 1 and its $742 million for land acquisition. More than $300 million of Amendment 1 funds were deemed misappropriated, including money to pay for the operation of state agencies that currently are funded with other tax dollars.
“(The legislators) have clearly misinterpreted the will of the people. What a colossal mistake,” he said. “It’s amazing we have a $70 billion tourism industry in the state of Florida, much of that is south of Lake Okeechobee. Yet, it appears legislators seem to favor a $4.5 billion sugar industry economic impact.
“It’s just a matter of getting those who understand the importance of representing the public interest over special interests.”