Environmentalists say it’s now or never on a deal that could provide a critical link to moving water from Lake Okeechobee to the parched southern Everglades.
“This is a one-time opportunity for the state to fulfill its half of the responsibility,” said Julie Hill-Gabriel, Everglades policy director at the National Audubon Society. “This is not part of a wish list. It’s not anything new. This is part of the must-do list.”
The land, about 26,000 acres just south of Lake Okeechobee, would be used to store water from the lake bounded by an aging dike. High water levels have forced the U.S. Corps of Engineers to release water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers in recent weeks, potentially fouling the estuaries with pollution. The deal was negotiated by the state in 2010 and is set to expire in October.
But to use money from Amendment 1, a measure overwhelmingly approved by voters in November to spend taxes from real estate deals on environmental land, the South Florida Water Management District needs to obtain an appraisal. The land was last appraised as part of the 2010 deal at about $350 million.
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District board members were unmoved earlier this month by environmentalists’ demand for action. So the Everglades Coalition, representing more than 50 groups, launched an ad campaign around the state. At a press briefing Friday, the group said lawmakers have so far rejected their requests.
“The question is, if not at this site, then where? And if not now, when?” said Tom Van Lent, science director at the Everglades Foundation.