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Land buy critical for Everglades restoration

March 11, 2015
By RAY JUDAH , Lehigh Acres Citizen

During the 2015 Florida legislative session, the legislature has a unique and unprecedented opportunity to restore the Florida Everglades and coastal estuaries on the west and east coast of south Florida.

While Governor Scott and key legislative leaders including Senator Joe Negron (R), Senate Appropriations Committee, Representative Steve Crisafulli (R), Speaker of the House and Representative Matt Caldwell (R), House Appropriations Committee continue to support the expenditure of billions of dollars of taxpayers money under the current capital improvement program of water resource projects to the west and east of Lake Okeechobee, there is a critical need to purchase additional land south of the lake for storage, treatment and conveyance of water to the Everglades.

Even with the proposed short and long term fix to enhance the quantity and quality of water in the Lake Okeechobee watershed, the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program (CERP) of reservoirs and storm water treatment areas, will provide some storage and enhance minimum flows, but have a negligible impact on maximum flows from Lake Okeechobee. In fact, a review of the water budget for Lake Okeechobee in terms of rainfall, inflow and evaporation requires a minimum of one million acre feet or approximately 325 billion gallons of water storage in addition to the storage capacity to be constructed under CERP to properly handle maximum flows from the lake.

In order to move water south to rehydrate the Everglades, recharge the Biscayne aquifer and stop the excessive releases of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee to downstream coastal estuaries, the legislature needs to exercise the existing option with U.S. Sugar Corporation to purchase approximately 46,000 acres south of the lake prior to the end of the 2015 legislative session. Legislative appropriation of the funds by May 1 is of paramount importance to purchase the lands by the Oct. 12 deadline.

Funding is available through the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative (Amendment 1), approved by over 75 percent of the voters, which specifically funds the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to "acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands including wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and drinking water sources, including the Everglades." Purchase of the lands would not obviate funds needed for springs and coastal beach protection.

There will be detractors who insist that there are "constraints" to moving water south. For the record, the only constraint is the vast expanse of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) south of Lake Okeechobee, including approximately 440,000 acres of sugar cane fields, that severs the hydrological connection between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

Low lying areas in the EAA caused by subsidence of the substrate, due to decades of burning and accelerated oxidation of the underlying peat and muck, would be ideal as storage reservoirs in a flow-way that would function in the same manner as the chain of lakes in the Kissimmee River Basin. Furthermore, any pooling of water in the absence of gravitational flow to the south can be pumped in the same manner that pumps redistribute water for agriculture in the EAA today.

Potential seepage from a flow-way in the EAA can be managed in a variety of different ways including the use of seepage cut off walls and seepage canals to avoid damage to the agricultural fields.

A meandering flow-way with wetland vegetation would effectively stabilize the rate of surface water flow to the south and greatly enhance the quality of water in the Everglades. This would also reduce harmful discharge to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

Moving forward proactively to obtain the available land to secure the last piece of the puzzle to restore the Everglades and prevent further harm to our coastal estuaries would be the most cost effective and efficient solution for the public taxpayers.

Ray Judah is a former Lee County Commissioner.

 
 

 

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