The federal government will spend $100 million to clean up the Everglades’ headwaters. (Photo courtesy of the Everglades Foundation.)

By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in Palm Beach County on Aug. 11 that the federal government will spend $100 million to start the clean-up of the Everglades’ headwaters.

Sure, there’s already the litigated $13.5 billion federal-state partnership called the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. But much of the CERP’s focus is on the area south of Lake Okeechobee. This new program, which uses money from the Dept. of Agriculture’s Wetlands Reserve Program, will buy development rights to 24,000 acres north of Lake Okeechobee, where the River of Grass actually starts.

The devlopment rights — under which the landowner retains ownership of the land but promises to keep it undeveloped — will help engineers restore the former, winding course of the Kissimmee River, straightened out by the Corps of Engineer in the 1920s and ’30s. And it will allow lands to revert back to wetlands, soaking up fertilizers and other pollutants that now flow into Lake Okeechobee.

That pollution, wrote reporter Craig Pittman in the St. Petersburg Times, “turned a popular fishing spot into what one government official described as ‘a chocolate mess.’ The lake is 730 square miles in size but only 9 feet deep, and some of the bottom has three feet of nutrient-packed ooze.”

The plan has drawn accolades from The Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, outdoor enthusiasts, Audubon of Florida, The Everglades Foundation, and farming and business interests.

Announcing the funding, Vilsack said that for every dollar spent by the federal government, he expected another $4 in economic activity. Some is already happening. Palm Beach Post reporter Susan Salisbury spoke to the former manager of a ranch that received $42 million for 11,000 acres. He said the money had been used to transform a diseased citrus grove into strawberry and blueberry fields. That move created 400 to 600 seasonal jobs and 20 to 30 full-time ones.

“From my perspective this approach once again demonstrates that our economy and environment need not be in conflict — when managed properly, healthy natural systems are a foundation for a healthy economy,” wrote Mark Tercek, president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy.

So Central Florida farmers and businesses will receive an infusion of cash, and southwest Florida waterways such as the Peace River have a better chance of staying healthy. The endangered Florida panther’s habitat will grow. And Lake Okeechobee, the drinking fountain for more than 5 million people who live in southeast Florida, will hopefully get a little recharge.

And don’t forget Everglades National Park. The restoration of its health started all this, and it should be a prime beneficiary of the $100 million.

What’s not to like?

The biggest negative, it seems, is the current economic and political climate that places cutting ahead of investment.

But as the Times’ Pittman points out in his article, this is not federal money that the state can reject. Landowners deal directly with the USDA.

Future federal funding, however, is less certain. The folks with the Environmental Defense Fund point out that the Wetlands Reserve Fund is among the conservation programs being targeted for up to a billion dollars in cuts.