Disaster aid sought for South Florida farmers

A tomato field adjacent to the C-111 canal in South Miami-Dade flooded Dec. 5 as rain soaked the region.
A tomato field adjacent to the C-111 canal in South Miami-Dade flooded Dec. 5 as rain soaked the region. South Florida Water Management District

Federal disaster aid is being sought for South Florida farmers who said Monday that many fields remain under water more than a week after heavy rain triggered widespread flooding.

At a press conference called by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo said he has asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to declare flooded farmlands a disaster so farmers can apply for relief, including loans. Farmers say they’ve lost millions in crops, although the final tally is still being calculated.

A half-dozen farmers who attended the meeting also complained that water managers did too little in advance after forecasts called for heavy rain.

“We’ve been through worse and never had water standing for this long,” said farmer Mike Causely, who lost 300 acres of beans and sweet corn. He said low interest loans would not likely help: “You know what a loan is in our industry? Another rope to hang yourself with.”

On Dec. 3, the region was hit with heavy rain that lasted three days, becoming the wettest three-day period since 2000. Water managers tracking forecasts had started lowering water levels in canals, clearing vegetation and manning pumps round the clock to deal with the deluge. But when a second round of heavy rain hit two days later, the system backed up, flooding streets from Homestead to Kendall and leaving hundreds of acres of farmland in the middle of a winter growing season underwater.

The region remains in flood control mode, said South Florida Water Management District engineer John Mitnik. The problem is particularly bad in eastern fields, where flooding still occurs at high tide.

Farmers have increasingly complained that the district and U.S. Corps of Army Engineers have kept groundwater levels in the region too high as they work to restore the Everglades and coastal areas damaged by decades of flood control.

In the early 1960s, water along the western edge of farmlands drained from the C-111 canal and dumped out a gate into Barnes South. Over the years, that gate — the S-197 — grew from just three small culverts to four concrete culverts more than 10 feet wide and 10 feet high.

“They’re big enough to drive a car through,” Mitnik said at another Homestead meeting Monday that is part of an ongoing study launched in the fall to look at flooding and poor conditions in Florida Bay after a massive seagrass die-off.

Scientists now realize diverting water to a single gate, while providing flood control for farmers, was devastating Florida Bay. At least two projects are underway aimed at restoring historic sheet flows, but have tested the competing interests in the region that include farmers, two national parks, environmentalists and $700 million a year fishing industry.

“There have to be some solutions put on the table that really look at all the realities we’re facing,” said Tabitha Cale, an Everglades policy analyst for the National Audubon Society. “While we’re trying to maintain a robust amount of farming in South Dade, we don’t want to do that at the expense of the incredible fisheries in Florida Bay.”

Jenny Staletovich: 305-376-2109, @jenstaletovich