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Guest Commentary: Beware of the cry for more state land buying

By Staff | Jun 22, 2016

“Buy the land, send the water south” has become a common rallying cry for Florida activists looking to return the flow of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades. This kind of mantra tells me history has been forgotten and reality is no longer common sense.

My fear is this mindset is tied to buying more land which would put rural Florida in the cross hairs of the coastal environmental extremists. The result could be a huge and unnecessary expense for all the taxpayers of Florida if we move in this direction.

The South Florida Water Management District has purchased more than 200,000 acres of land for conservation and restoration since 2000 and now owns over 750,000 acres of conservation lands in south Florida. Other state agencies own an additional million acres. When combined with the vast federal ownership of lands in south Florida, there are now over 5.5 million acres of conservation lands in public ownership within the boundaries of SFWMD.

Let’s maximize the use of these lands to accomplish our restoration and preservation efforts. Partnerships with the agricultural community are excellent tools that can be used to implement conservation programs on public lands. Recent science-based data back up the success of these programs, coupled with best management practices.

In 2013, the state and federal government analyzed how much additional water storage south of Lake Okeechobee was feasible and determined that adding a 15,000-acre shallow reservoir to Florida’s existing 15,000-acre shallow reservoir was all that was needed. If the science and data show a need to build additional storage in the future, through adaptive management, the state can simply build deeper reservoirs on these 30,000 acres of shallow reservoirs which are already in public ownership and in the right location.

These shallow reservoir sites are known as the A1 and A2 reservoirs. They are integral pieces of the overall Everglades restoration plan and are designed to be deepened in the future if and when the science determines that additional storage south of Lake Okeechobee is needed.

At a recent conference in Fort Myers I listened to Ernie Marks of the South Florida Water Management District talk about the many state and federal projects ready for construction. These projects will change our landscape for years to come, ultimately restoring and preserving what we have for our children while maintaining economic sustainability in all sectors of our society.

History tells us that it took nearly three decades to build the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control system. Now, with almost eight times as many people, it will likely take us at least that long if not longer given all the constraints of an increasing population and endangered species. We need to spend our money wisely to implement this massive restoration project. With the science and a legislative mandate in place we should not deviate from Governor Scott’s 20-year plan to build more treatment wetlands and water storage capacity to ensure that water moves south into Everglades National Park. This means completing and operating these projects currently on the books, not buying more land.

Simply put, “sending the water south” is a complete distraction. Both the Florida Legislature and Congress have already invested billions of dollars into the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan which does not include buying or developing land south of the lake. The next phase of CERP must focus on storing and cleaning the water at the point of entry to Lake Okeechobee.

Let’s take advantage of Legacy Florida by designing and constructing these projects. This year, in a move that was widely celebrated by environmentalists, the state of Florida increased its commitment to the tune of $200 million more per year through Legacy Florida to finish critical projects. Now the federal government needs to do its part by helping to more quickly fund the projects that are already in the pipeline.

We need science – not bumper sticker slogans – to guide us. The state needs to maximize the use of the land we have before purchasing more. If we complete the mission of CERP that was started decades ago, we will finally have the meaningful solutions we need to fully restore the Everglades and manage water in a smarter, more forward-thinking way. We need to exercise patience and work together smartly, not on emotion, to accomplish our restoration goals.

– Gary Ritter is the assistant director of Government and Community Affairs fr the Florida Farm Bureau Federation.