State and federal leaders Tuesday expressed “optimism” and the need for cooperation for the future of the Everglades, calling for more partnerships with -- rather than continuing to punish -- ranchers and farmers who work alongside the River of Grass.
Gov. Rick Scott downplayed the increase in funding he’s requested for Everglades maintenance, saying the key is to spend any money correctly, during a panel discussion that was part of the Everglades Water Supply Summit at the Augustus B. Turnbull III Florida State Conference Center in Tallahassee.
“We put something on the table, and basically all the federal agencies have to go through it,” Scott said during a panel discussion on the future of the water system. “We’re sharing all our modeling, all our information, and I’m sure they’re going to have ideas that will improve what we put on the table.”
Meanwhile, Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said progress is being made as governments work together rather than fight over the restoration efforts in court.
“The governor and I have many conversations about this,” Salazar said. “We’re not interested in litigation, we’re not interested in finger-pointing; what we’re interested in are results that matter and for us having success in the restoration is very important to the president of the United States. It’s very important to this governor and it’s very important to me.”
See video of Gov. Rick Scott and Ken Salazar after the panel discussion here.
Earlier Tuesday, Salazar attended an announcement about the federal government supporting the $97 million Tamiami Trail Bridge project, which is designed -- by raising a one-mile section of the road into a bridge -- to help restore freshwater flows to Everglades National Park and the South Florida ecosystem.
On Wednesday, Salazar will hold a similar announcement at the Central Florida headwaters of Lake Okeechobee in Haines City, to announce a $45 million project to improve the water quality in the Kissimmee River.
Still, state leaders say they expect Florida will be relied upon more and more to undertake the needed repairs to the national treasure to maintain freshwater quality and quantity for the 7 million South Florida residents.
Not every panelist expressed bipartisan kumbayahs.
Paul Tudor Jones, chairman of the Everglades Foundation, compared the decades of damage that has been done mostly by agricultural interests to the Everglades to a slow but steady version of last year’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“The only difference is that this has been incremental and invisible, so you don’t get that fantastic shot of the tremendous pollution coming out of the broken well,” Jones said.
The comment drew a quick rebuttal from Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who noted the Jones analogy ignores the sprawl west of Florida's Turnpike in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
“Agriculture in Florida is a partner in land stewardship and conservation, and there is not enough money, there will not be enough money, and it is not good public policy to eradicate them, because what will follow them?” Putnam said. “Do you really think you’re going to buy up everything south of Lake Okeechobee?”
Putnam noted that the 1996 voter-approved Everglades Restoration Act has generated $200 million from growers, while the majority of farms around Lake Okeechobee have agreed to best management practice to reduce nutrient loads that reach area waters.
“The important thing that has changed is that we are seeing a much better conversation between agriculture and the environmental community because all of us have watched in the last 10 years when development just explodes,” he said.
Putnam also was adamant in his opposition to a plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to take two years off from restoration of the dike around Lake Okeechobee to study the effectiveness of past repair efforts.
“For the St. Lucie Canal, for the Caloosahatchee, for the health of the Everglades, for the needs of people and industry, the most important piece of this puzzle is to get Lake Okeechobee right so you can hold water levels where they can be effective,” Putnam said.
Meanwhile, House Speaker-designate Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said the state needs to follow through on plans already out there, adding that with federal money drying up, it’s up to the state to assume responsibility for the Everglades.
“Florida has to take ownership of this problem; it is a national problem that we have to protect, but I don’t think we can rely upon Washington, D.C., or any other group or entity to solve this problem,” Weatherford said, sitting on a panel focused on water supply.
“This is our state, these are our people, these are our resources we need to protect," he said. "We need to find a way to prioritize the Everglades.”
On top of the $142 million Congress has authorized to restore the headwaters into South Florida and the freshwater flow through the Everglades basin, Scott -- who in October unveiled his own plan for the Everglades -- has proposed boosting the state’s funding for the Everglades to $40 million in the next fiscal year budget.
A year ago, Scott proposed $17 million, with the Legislature setting aside $30 million.
The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project and related projects have cost the state more than $4 billion.
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard said the struggling economy is forcing officials to be creative when budgeting for the Everglades.
South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Melissa Meeker said she’d love to immediately do everything that those attending the conference want for the Everglades. However, she said, everyone must understand that any plan to improve water quality or improve water conservation will require collaboration with businesses that own land throughout Central and South Florida.
“I can’t accomplish anything without having industry as a partner,” Meeker said. “The water runs through their area, I have to bring them to the table.”
Reach Jim Turner at email@example.com or at (772) 215-9889.