This opinion editorial orginally ran in Independent Journalon April 15, 2016.
Words that should trigger the red flag: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” In the Sunshine State, it’s time to start waving in warning because U.S. Congressman Curt Clawson has arrived with a federal “solution” to Florida water storage issues specifically in regard to the restoration of the Everglades.
Sadly, his proposal is one that will not solve anything. To understand why, one must understand the challenge.
At the epicenter of this issue is Lake Okeechobee, the fourth largest freshwater lake in the U.S. To the south of the Lake is some of Florida’s most fertile land for agriculture. In the 1920s, as farmers were just beginning to understand the value and richness of these lands, two hurricanes led to extreme flooding of this area. In one storm, more than 2,000 people perished.
As a result, President Herbert Hoover and Congress acted to prevent such floods from happening again. In the 1930s, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers (USACE) began the task of building what became known as the Herbert Hoover Dike (HHD), a 143-mile earthen dam that surrounds Lake Okeechobee.
Despite the added protection and capacity the dike brought to Lake Okeechobee, there are constraints that limit how much the Lake can hold. First, the Kissimmee River watershed, a 5,300 square mile watershed originating just to the south of Orlando, drains into Lake Okeechobee, a 750 square mile body of water. Second, during heavy rain events, the added amount of water to the Lake can also present additional complications.
A series of canals authorized by Congress funnel some of the waters from the Lake to the Atlantic Ocean. However, when water levels reach a certain depth (approximately 15 feet), the integrity of the HHD becomes threatened. To counteract this and keep the dike intact, the USACE is mandated to release excess water though passageways to the east and to the southwest. These releases cause damage to the ecosystems because they create harmful algae blooms and destroy submerged plant life. This, in turn, affects tourism, local businesses and the fishing industry, major pillars of Florida’s economy.
The solution to this challenge has almost universal agreement: excess water needs to be captured and stored before it can do harm. The “help” the federal government proposes is in the form of $500 million to build a reservoir to the south of Lake O.
However, the proposal from Rep. Clawson, who campaigned on the value of limiting government, not only does just the opposite by empowering the federal government to land grab from private owners, it disregards several important factors.
To begin with, it goes against logic. If the water in your bathtub were dangerously close to overflowing, logic would dictate to turn the water off to avoid a spillover. Would it not follow similar rationale to capture and store waterbeforeit gets to the Lake, in effect stopping the overflow?
Second, Florida environmental specialists, both in and out of government who have studied this issue for years, agree that capturing and storing the water south of the Lake will be insufficient. Millions of acre-feet of storage are needed, and the best storage locations are in fact north of the Lake.
Third, Everglades projects that have already been approved are supposed to be funded through a 50-50 partnership between the state and the feds. To date, the federal government is about $1 billion behind in their part of the agreement. Instead of $500 million for an effort that won’t work, how about the federal government fund already-made promises they haven’t delivered on?
Finally, the agricultural community has been proactive and continues to lead the way on water quality protection through best management practices (BMP). Enacted BMPs have led to nearly 95 percent of the Everglades meeting a stringent 10 parts-per-billion water quality standard. Stormwater treatment areas have also contributed massive amounts of additional clean water to Lake O.
In addition, Floridians approved Amendment 1 to the state constitution in 2014. It authorized one-third of doc stamp revenues for 20 years be allocated for conservation land purchases, maintenance of current government owned lands (Florida is already more than 28 percent in conservation), and Everglades restoration.
Recently, Gov. Rick Scott signed the Legacy Florida bill, dedicating $200 million per year from Amendment 1 funding go to restoration projects, the large majority of money going to Everglades projects. This money will recur for the 20-year life of the bill.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has mapped out a 20-year plan that will put the Everglades ecosystem in a sustainable status.
If the federal government truly wants to have a positive impact in Florida, here are a few recommendations. First, the federal government should fulfill its already-made financial promises. Second, the feds, and others, should understand that buying or taking (through eminent domain) productive farmlands south of the Lake would not solve overflow problems. And third, if you’re “from the government and here to help,” take time to understand the plans Florida already has underway instead of proposing new ways to spend our tax dollars inefficiently.