Advocates of Everglades restoration might have felt as if they won the Florida lottery Thursday.
First, they wake up to $100 million from the USDA to help with wetlands restoration in the northern Everglades watershed.
Then they learn at a South Florida Water Management District meeting later in the morning that the source controls south of Lake Okeechobee are working up a storm. According to the SFWMD, the farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) south of Lake Okeechobee achieved a record-setting 79 percent phosphorus reduction in the water leaving the farming region.
It was like winning a jackpot.
THE SUCCESS IN REDUCING PHOSPHORUS
This year represents the 16th consecutive year that phosphorus reductions in the 470,000-acre EAA farming region are significantly better than the 25 percent reduction required by law.
How good is a 79 percent phosphorous reduction? Explained Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, it means that by implementing improved farming techniques known as Best Management Practices, farmers actually have scrubbed their own "used" water cleaner than the water in Lake Okeechobee.
Pamela Wade was first at the Thursday board meeting to praise farmers for their achievement. Wade, who is chief of the Everglades Regulation Bureau, presented the annual-update powerpoint presentation to the Water Management District board. "Growers have done an outstanding job to exceed the reductions required in the [EAA] basin," she said.
Throughout Thursday, appreciation for the growers' effort and results was effusive.
"Improving water quality is a key component in the ongoing effort to restore and improve South Florida's ecosystems," Board Chairman Joe Collins said in a written statement. "This is an important commitment made by our region's agricultural community to help in achieving meaningful phosphorous reductions that will benefit the Everglades."
The District explains that in the EAA, the most commonly used BMPs against phosphorus are "more precise fertilizer application methods, refined stormwater pumping practices and erosion controls."
SFWMD scientists expressed their praise primarily by doing the numbers. According to the District press release, "When measured in actual mass, 173.6 metric tons of phosphorus were prevented from entering the regional canal system, which sends water into the Everglades, during the 2011 monitoring period. Over the past 16 years, the BMP program has prevented 2,411 metric tons of phosphorus from leaving the EAA."
Said Putnam, "I applaud the ongoing efforts of growers and ranchers in the EAA, and am committed to the long-term investment in Best Management Practices in the EAA and throughout Florida."
Barbara Miedema, vice president of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative and a member of Gov. Rick Scott's transition team on water, took the long view. "When the BMP program was first envisioned in 1991, no one imagined it would be this effective over the long term," she said. "It's an example of the kind of success that can be achieved in partnership with scientists and farmers who roll up their sleeves to get the job done."
Gaston Cantens, vice president of Florida Crystals Corp., asked why anybody would be surprised at the farmers' achievements. "They've done it for years," he said. "The sugar industry, the other farmers, we've all supported the Everglades Forever Act from the beginning. Think about it ... We've averaged a 55 percent phosphorus reduction rate for the last 16 years. That takes a lot of effort, and a lot of good people wanting good things to happen to get a result like that."
Cantens said farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area are the only ones in the country who pay a "privilege" tax on their land -- $25 an acre -- $200 million since Everglades Forever first was enacted. "And they never minded, never complained, because it's the right thing to do."
Cantens summed up, "We 've got an old saying: 'You can't cover up the sun with one finger.' And that's how it is. You can't hide the good that's been done by these farmers in the EAA."
Eric Draper, executive director of Florida Audubon, admitted that 79 percent phosphorus reductions in 2011 -- and an average of 55 percent over the last 16 years -- is a laudable accomplishment. "But," he said, "Audubon is really looking for even greater reductions. We believe the BMPs need to be revisited and the standards improved. You have to remember, it's not just the percentage of phosphorus we look at, it's the quantity of phosphorus."
Sugar farmers claim that in addition to improving water quality using high-tech, sustainable practices, "more than $200 million has been paid by farmers for the construction of Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs) to further clean water." STAs, they say, are built on 60,000 acres of former farmland and have reduced phosphorus by an additional 1,400 metric tons.
$100 MILLION FOR THE NORTHERN EVERGLADES WATERSHED
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced Thursday that the Northern Everglades watershed will get $100 million in federal financial assistance to acquire permanent easements from eligible landowners in four counties and assist with wetlands restoration on nearly 24,000 acres of agricultural land.
By purchasing only the development rights, the USDA avoids shelling out the full price for the property it needs for restoration work, officials said. The agency has another $3 million set aside to assist landowners in restoring the wetlands that once existed on that property.
Said Adam Putnam, Agriculture plays an integral role in the restoration of wetlands in the Northern Everglades. Agricultural lands have some of the greatest natural resources of any private lands in Florida. The open space allows them to protect ground and surface water resources and preserve critical habitat for endangered and threatened species, while remaining working agricultural lands. USDAs commitment to the Wetlands Restoration Program (WRP) will enable Florida agriculture to continue its important efforts to enhance the natural resources of the Northern Everglades Watershed.
This is the largest single conservation outlay the U.S. Department of Agriculture has ever made to a single state, according to USDA officials.
Florida leaders remarked on the gift, most of them lauding USDA efforts to protect the Northern Everglades:
Bill Nelson, United States senator: "This is a win-win that helps restore the Northern Everglades while allowing Florida ranching traditions to continue."
John Hoblick, president, Florida Farm Bureau: "Conservation programs provided by NRCS are invaluable and production agriculture stands ready to do its part to maintain green space, wildlife habitat and freshwater recharge areas. The farmer's and rancher's role has never been more important."
Alcee L. Hastings, U.S. representative (FL- 23): "I would like to thank Secretary Vilsack and the USDA for providing the state with much-needed funds for the Wetlands Reserve Program. Since the Everglades are the source of a majority of our fresh drinking water, preserving and restoring this national treasure is vital both for the wildlife calling the River of Grass home and also for our own good. This latest drought we've experienced demonstrates how crucial a reliable supply of clean drinking water is for Florida. ..."
Keith Fountain, Florida protection director, The Nature Conservancy: "Protecting and restoring the vast natural landscapes in the Northern Everglades will pay huge benefits in the future for all of us. The benefits from the Wetland Reserve Program are perhaps the broadest of any USDA conservation program -- permanent conservation of habitat, continued private ownership and economic benefit from cattle ranching, and wetland restoration that revives lost habitats and retains and cleans water for the people of Central and South Florida."
Melissa L. Meeker, executive director, South Florida Water Management District: "The District appreciates the opportunity to work with public and private partners for the common goal of protecting and restoring the vast natural landscapes of the Northern Everglades."
This $100 million is not federal money the state can reject. Landowners enroll in the program, sign a contract directly with the USDA, and it's done.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com, or at (850) 727-0859.