Center for Property Rights

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By: The James Madison Institute / 2017

One of the more intense debates thus far in the run-up to the 2017 Florida Legislative Session has focused on a proposal submitted by theFlorida Senateto acquire 60,000 acres of land currently being used for agricultural production. It calls for taxpayer money (about $2.4 billion in total) to be spent on transforming land in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) into a water storage reservoir.

And why you may ask? Because, in times of heavy rains, too much water accumulates in Lake Okeechobee. To ensure the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake, the Army Corps of Engineers must release enormous amounts of water. While such releases prevent a catastrophic flood were the dike to fail, they create challenges to the east and west of Lake O. in the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River estuaries. The massive amounts of released waters create algae blooms that destroy parts of the eco-systems and turn the water a putrid brownish-green. It's fair to say that no one wants to fish or swim in polluted waters. The blooms deter sportsmen and tourists from the areas, affecting already struggling local economies.

The problem is real and action is needed. The solution, as proposed, may stop these damaging overflows and save the day. However, if you have been following the debate in detail (as opposed to soundbites), you know that there will in fact be tradeoffs.

For example, during a rain event, storage on the magnitude of one to two million acre-feet of storage is needed. The proposed reservoir is expected to store only 360,000 acre-feet (less than one-third the amount needed). Another wrinkle: the proposed reservoir will not bring its limited relief to the region until at least 2032. In politics, 15 years is a lifetime. Moreover, local communities need relief sooner.

One large wrinkle most often cited is the cost of the proposed plan. Acquiring the land and building the reservoir is estimated to be approximately $2.4 billion. That's a lot of money for one-third of the solution.

In the Feb. 7 Senate Committee on Environmental Protection and Conservation, public testimony was sharply divided into two camps. One camp lived in the areas now being affected by the water releases. Their mantra is one that has often been voiced: Buy the Land.

The other camp included those who have been less vocal: the farmers in the EAA who do not want their land taken. These are property owners who want to continue using their property to produce something of value and benefit to all Floridians.

They raised an issue that must be at the forefront of the discussion among policymakers — the cost to the people, the communities, and even the governments living and operating in the EAA.

After months of exhaustive research, The James Madison Institute released a report conducted and authored in partnership with the widely-renowned Washington Economics Group, Inc. and its Founder and Principal Tony Villamil. The study, Sticker Shock: Examining the Economic Impacts of Land Acquisition in the EAA paints a far more comprehensive, and concerning, picture of the costs of the proposed land buy.

On top of the $2.4 billion price tag, the economic impacts of the proposal would be far-reaching and enormous. Considering the impact on jobs, household income, gross domestic product, total economic impact and revenues (federal, state, and local), the study shows the proposal will lead to a net loss of approximately $695 million in economic activity. In addition, job losses will total more than 4,000, and household income will suffer a loss of $166 million. The study assesses the impacts statewide, on both Palm Beach and Hendry counties, and on the local area.

As can be seen, the consequences of the proposal in its current form are both massive and harmful. Hopefully, lawmakers and others will take the time to look at this study It would be terribly unfair for Florida's agricultural communities to suffer at the expense of a plan that will not meet an immediate need.

Fortunately, there are other proposals which can be considered which are cheaper and faster while doing no harm to Florida's economy.

Daniel Peterson is the James Madison Institute's Director of the Center for Property Rights.