Lake Okeechobee Land Purchase
Senate Bill 10
By Kathy Panko, Environmental Issues Group
A proposal to purchase 60,000 acres of fertile farmland for a water reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee in hopes of solving problems in the coastal estuaries to the north has turned into a battle. The $2.4 million plan is moving forward. The idea is to store and clean phosphorus-laden water before releasing it into Everglades National Park. Environmentalists have wanted this for years, but efforts to buy the land have been sidelined by agriculture and sugar-industry opposition. The push was announced after last summer’s discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries led to toxic algae blooms along the Treasure Coast.
A coalition of Palm Beach County vegetable farmers and other related businesses in the Everglades Agricultural Area has formed an organization to fight the proposal – EAA Farmers, Inc. These farmers produce 26 major crops and supply much of the nation’s winter vegetables grown in rotation with sugarcane.They argue that there are no guarantees Lake Okeechobee water will be clean even if the 60,000 acres are purchased. They point to a 2015 University of Florida study which found that most of the freshwater discharge and nutrients in the estuaries come from local basins, not Lake Okeechobee.
In February 2017, sixty water experts delivered a letter to Governor Rick Scott saying that authorized projects, including the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, should be completed instead.
EAA says the land purchase would put the smaller farmers and vegetable growers out of business and result in the closing of at least two vegetable packing houses and a sugar mill. The real price of the proposal is the loss of jobs and economic activity in the Glades communities.
The proposal also has the close attention of LORE (Lake Okeechobee Regional Economic Group). LORE claims the purchase would cause more than 1,000 people to lose their jobs. The bill gives no consideration to the human and community element. The Glades region would lose one of the most valuable economic engines that created jobs in the region.
If there are not enough willing land sellers, then the bill calls for buying 153,000 acres of land from the U.S. Sugar Corp. under an option entered into in 2010.
Note: Information for the above article was gleaned from articles published in the Palm Beach Post on February 5 & 10, 2017 and Miami Herald on August 9, 2016.