Changes could divert more water to Everglades

01/16/2015

Changes could divert more water to Everglades

KEY LARGO, Fla. – Jan. 12, 2015 – The stars are aligned for lawmakers to make major strides in diverting Lake Okeechobee water away from the Treasure Coast, environmentalists at the annual Everglades conference said, because this year's theme is "Send it South."

The call to send excess lake water south to the Everglades jibes perfectly with predictions the Legislature will work to adopt a statewide water policy. Incoming House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, has said he wants to overhaul water management policies; and incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, talked about "water and natural resources policy" in his speech after being formally elected to leadership.

After the 2014 Legislature approved $230 million for Everglades, St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon restoration projects, could the focus shift to Florida's 900 springs, mostly in the central and northern parts of the state?

"Sure, the springs are a valid concern," said Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart and an Everglades Coalition board member. "But if you look at the water situation holistically, you have to look at Lake Okeechobee, the St. Lucie River, the Indian River Lagoon and springs."

Beyond protecting the river and lagoon, restoring the natural flow from the lake to the Everglades will reroute billions of gallons of wasted water to the south, where it's needed for agriculture and the state's largest population centers, Perry argued.

"If that's not an important state water issue, I don't know what is."

2014 'good start'

The 2014 Legislature was "a good start," Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said, predicting the lagoon and St. Lucie River will be a top legislative priority this year too as long as people who care about the environment "don't let it become just another 'crisis du jour' for lawmakers in Tallahassee."

Throw in voters' overwhelming support in November for Amendment 1, which sets aside millions of dollars a year to buy environmentally sensitive land and specifically mentions buying land in the Everglades Agricultural Area, and environmentalists have a way to fund their dream: a flow-way south.

The Amendment 1 Coalition, an alliance of environmental groups that sponsored and pushed the amendment, proposed splitting the $500 million expected to be generated in the first year thusly:

″ $150 million to Everglades, estuaries and the Lake Okeechobee watershed;

″ $150 million for Florida Forever (the same amount Gov. Rick Scott recommended); and

″ $200 million to manage beaches and conservation lands and restore springs.

Eric Draper of Audubon Florida expects legislators to mull a major land purchase for a project to store and clean up to 100 billion gallons of excess lake water and send it to the Everglades.

That amount of water is roughly equivalent to half a foot off the lake. The project would cost about $800 million: $200 million to $300 million for the land and another $500 million to build.

The Legislature could use Amendment 1 money spread over several years to pay for it, Draper said.

Sugar land option

It just so happens the state has until Oct. 12 to buy up to 46,800 acres of scattered parcels from U.S. Sugar Corp. – most of it in the area needed for the flow-way on the south end of the lake between Clewiston and Belle Glade.

"This a golden opportunity to buy the land that's needed not only to save our estuaries but to ensure South Florida of the water supply it needs," Perry said.

All that's missing: Where to put the flow-way; and a University of Florida Water Institute study of proposed routes between the lake and the Everglades is due March 1, right before the legislative session begins. The study will look at advantages and disadvantages of route options and will make a recommendation only if the scientists involved reach a consensus, said Wendy Graham, the institute director.

"Shame on us," Eikenberg said, "if we don't take advantage of this opportunity and solve South Florida's plumbing problem now."

What they had to say

Participants at the Everglades Coalition's annual conference in Key Largo were asked: What should be the top priority of the 2015 Florida Legislature?"

"The most important priority has to be to use Amendment 1 funds to acquire land south of Lake Okeechobee to stop the releases of water that are destroying the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries." – Nathaniel P. "Nat" Reed, Jupiter Island. Former undersecretary, U.S. Interior Department

"The Legislature has to act on the option to buy 46,800 acres of U.S. Sugar (Corp.) land, all of it, while they have the opportunity. And ultimately, all 153,000 acres needs to be purchased. You can't store and move water without land." – Cris Costello. Regional organizer, Sierra Club

"A huge issue for us is how the Amendment 1 funds will be prioritized, how the projects funded by it will be prioritized. Voters overwhelmingly told legislators that the environment comes first." – Sarah Heard, Stuart, Martin County commissioner

"The top three priorities should be: Buy the land and send the water south, buy the land and send the water south and buy the land and send the water south." – Maggy Hurchalla, Stuart, Former Martin County commissioner

Copyright © 2015 the Treasure Coast Newspapers (Stuart, Fla.), Tyler Treadway. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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