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Final goal of Everglades restoration in sight

 

This spring I was proud to carry a House bill to conclude Everglades restoration south of Lake Okeechobee, closing one of the most successful environmental restoration efforts in Florida history. By fully funding the plan proposed by Gov. Rick Scott, we will ensure that the southern Everglades and Everglades National Park will forever receive water of high quality that exceeds every standard placed upon it over the past 20 years.

Nearly a hundred years before a single sugar farmer made his way to Palm Beach County, the citizens of Florida approved and funded a plan to drain the state. The ultimate result of these policies was the creation of the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project, now managed principally by the South Florida Water Management District. The project was designed to protect human life and property from floods, provide drinking water to two million people in South Florida and make land available for farming.

Nearly 60 years later, the relatively tiny Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) grows more than half the sugarcane and a majority of the sweet corn and winter vegetables for the nation. Also, we have never repeated a massive loss of life from flooding as occurred during the 1926 and 1928 hurricanes when 5,000 died. Our system now supplies drinking water to more than 6 million people. By every measure for which it was designed, the project exceeds all expectations.

However, the 1940s-era project was never designed for the natural Everglades and, undoubtedly, we’ve paid a heavy price for it. Florida has spent the past 40 years intensively focused on reverse engineering this system to accommodate environmental restoration and protection. Under a court order to clean the water to a level of 10 parts per billion (ppb) of phosphorous, we have now reached 13 ppb, down from nearly 70 ppb. That is an astounding accomplishment. The new Everglades law will get us to the final goal – that’s why the plan was approved unanimously by the Legislature.

The June 10 Other Views column Another break for Big Sugar, by former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah, unfortunately shows that he and his allies in the environmental movement will only be satisfied once 8 million South Floridians complete their exodus from the Everglades. My colleagues and I in the state capital choose to deal in reality, however.

While farmers within the EAA serve as an easy target for Judah, he refuses to acknowledge that the vast majority of the water reaching the Caloosahatchee River comes from north of Lake Okeechobee. With the help of my colleagues, we have secured additional funding for the first water quality project on the Caloosahatchee in history. When it breaks ground later this year, it will begin to remove high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen from the river.

While Judah talked about the river for 30 years, I’m proud to have helped facilitate a real project in my three years of political service. I consider myself a conservationist and support projects that promote and protect the environment in a way that complements human presence. I’m honored by the opportunity to serve this state.

Matthew H. Caldwell, state representative, Lehigh Acres

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