The recent press conference held in Fort Myers by Gov. Scott to announce a joint agreement between the state and the U.S. Department of Interior to fund the construction of 2.5 miles of bridging along the Tamiami Trail, to enhance water flow to the Everglades, was a wonderful example of the state and federal government continuing to work together on behalf of Everglades restoration.
The bridging is a component of the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) which is a state and federal initiative to use land already in public ownership to allow more water to be directed south to the central Everglades, Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.
When completed CEPP is expected to provide for the conveyance of approximately 220,000 acre feet of water south to the Everglades. An acre foot is essentially one foot of water covering an acre.
Gov. Scott and the State Legislature now have a tremendous opportunity to finalize the most critical piece of the Everglades restoration puzzle by moving forward with exercising the state's option, created several years ago, to purchase U.S. Sugar land holdings. The three- year option on 153,209 acres at $7,400 per acre expires Oct 2013. The state would still have an opportunity to acquire U.S. Sugar lands after October but, at a much higher price and having to compete with other potential buyers. To place things in perspective, CEPP is expected to cost approximately $2.6 billion and the entire comprehensive Everglades restoration efforts is expected to cost approximately $16 billion over 30 years.
It is interesting to note, that in 2005, the east and west releases from Lake Okeechobee amounted to 2.6 million acre feet. This totaled 855 billion gallons of turbid fresh water containing excess nutrients and other contaminants. The coastal estuaries on the west and east coast of south Florida sustained unprecedented damages to sea grass and fisheries and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie were covered with toxic blue-green algae. Health Department officials warned citizens not to touch the water. Threats of serious health problems were cited.
River and estuary damages are certain to occur repeatedly under present drainage structures and practices. Restoration of the historic southern flow-way from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades is the most cost effective and efficient solution to alleviating the destruction of the rivers and east-west estuaries that were once acclaimed as the most bountiful in the nation.
The purchase of U.S. Sugar lands is absolutely critical to recreate a flow way through the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee to redirect the massive release of lake water that continues to cause adverse harm to coastal estuaries.
Our extremely wet summer rainy season of 2013 is shaping up like 2005 and with CEPP, including the bridging, conveying only approximately 10 percent of lake water to the south, it is imperative that the state acquire additional lands for the necessary storage, treatment and conveyance of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.
Gov. Scott should declare a state of emergency given the devastating economic and environmental impacts to the west and east coast communities of south Florida and schedule a Special Session with the Legislature to investigate options to acquire the U.S. Sugar lands. Such action would help bring to an end decades of degradation to our rivers, coastal estuaries and Florida Everglades. Bond financing, BP oil spill disaster funds dedicated to Florida under the Restore Act, or the re-prioritization of the South Florida Water Management District's Capital Improvement Program would provide the necessary funds to enable the state to exercise the land purchase option.
The final ingredient to "getting the water right" is the political will to complete the final phase of Everglades restoration.
- Ray Judah is a former Lee County Commissioner and long-time environmental activist.