Environmentalists say they are not giving up the battle to secure land south of Lake Okeechobee for Everglades restoration. They’re just changing tracts.
With lawmakers scheduled to meet Monday for the start of a 20-day special session, several of the state’s most influential conservation groups on Wednesday renewed calls to buy land needed to store water and move it to the thirsty southern Everglades. They also want lawmakers to order the South Florida Water Management District to set a schedule for designing and building a reservoir.
“We have a path forward,” said Mary Barley, president of the Everglades Trust. “The cost of inaction could be catastrophic.”
Over the dry winter, Florida Bay withered as salinity shot up. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was also forced to release dirty lake water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers to protect the lake’s aging dike. The dirty lake water triggered a toxic algae bloom two summers ago that killed fish and made the rivers off-limits for months.
The groups had hoped to complete a deal to buy about 46,000 acres from U.S. Sugar before it expired in October using money from Amendment 1, a November constitutional measure that 75 percent of voters supported. But the deal fell apart after the company backed off the plan and water managers instead voted to endorse a vague budget plan by Gov. Rick Scott to spend $500 million on restoration efforts. With that controversial deal behind them, group leaders said they were hopeful Wednesday that opposition would also fade.
“We’ve seen a lot of leadership on water issues,” said Audubon Florida executive director Eric Draper, adding that he had met with senators ready to consider alternatives.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan originally called for a six-foot deep reservoir covering about 60,000 acres, said Everglades Foundation science director Tom Van Lent. The state and Corps planned to use a 54,000-acre tract the state purchased. But after the state was ordered to clean up lake water polluted by neighboring farms before sending it south, the reservoir was instead used to treat water. Depending on the depth, a new reservoir would need to be 30,000 to 60,000 acres, Van Lent said.
“There is no one perfect site, but there are lots of viable sites,” he said. “The real question is can the land be acquired.”