This is a story about how to get things done in Tallahassee. Usually, it takes cash. Sometimes, it also takes a helicopter. Last year, a South Florida water agency ran out of money for a program that pays ranchers to hold back excess rainwater from filling up Lake Okeechobee too fast, a practice known as water-farming. A major agriculture corporation, Alico, asked the Legislature to instead use state taxpayer money to keep the project rolling.
An option for the state to buy a huge chunk of sugar fields — a deal at the center of a dispute over how to spend money generated by a constitutional measure intended to preserve Florida lands — will get a surprising second chance before the South Florida Water Management board this month. Don’t look for a resurrection. The $500 million-plus deal, already turned down by water managers last month, is likely to be rejected again in a move that seems largely designed to send a message to Florida legislators. Namely, that the board appointed by Gov. Rick Scott stands behind the governor’s proposal to spend $5 billion over the 20-year life of Amendment 1 on Everglades restoration projects — but not on 46,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land.
Florida Bay is thirsty, and it’s starting to bug the fish. Last month, while the rest of the state fretted over polluted water from Lake Okeechobee fouling nearby rivers, officials at the South Florida Water Management District reported that the southern Everglades was in trouble. Salinity in Taylor Slough, a historic freshwater artery for the bay, had spiked for the second year in a row, threatening to violate targets set to protect the marshes and marine life. A withering winter had left the region parched. And that could be bad news for shallow estuaries and creeks that fringe the bay.
Dirty water from Lake Okeechobee is once again threatening South Florida’s fragile ecosystem. With the arrival of the wet season and growing pressure on the lake’s aging dike, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced on Thursday that it would continue releasing water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers despite an algae bloom in and around the lake.
Facing a thicket of candidates and ballot measures in the November election, Florida voters sent one resounding message to elected officials: More must be done to protect the state’s natural habitats — including the long-suffering Everglades. But as the Legislature heads into the final days of this year’s session, Republican leaders are being criticized for the way they are divvying up a $750 million pool of money created to buy, conserve and restore land and water resources. It was established when three-quarters of Florida voters approved constitutional Amendment 1, which sets aside part of a real estate tax.
Supporters of Amendment 1, an environmental ballot measure that passed last year with a resounding 75 percent of the vote, are bracing for a legal battle with legislators over how to spend a $740 million windfall. The showdown looms with less than a week left in the regular 2015 session. Lawmakers have set aside no more than $20 million next year for Florida Forever, the state’s public land acquisition program. Environmentalists had expected at least $300 million when the ballot measure passed less than six months ago.