Last week, a bill passed in a Florida Senate committee guaranteed the Everglades Agricultural Area would get the irrigation water it wants from Lake Okeechobee. The full body takes up the issue today.
Supporters of Everglades restoration, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, argue this last-minute proposal undermines a recently approved plan to manage Everglades water distribution.
The Everglades Foundation, an advocacy group, contends the Senate is prioritizing agriculture over ecosystem protection. They issued the following public statement.
“This action by the Florida Senate Appropriations Committee threatens to upend the balance reached in Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual,” it read. “Senate Bill 2508 jeopardizes your water supply and the strides made in the LOSOM process to combat toxic discharges and, instead, this bill protects the sugar industry.”
Florida International University professor John Kominoski said the bill could deter the construction of the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir, which is vital to wetland restoration.
“The Senate bill will restrict water that we need to move from Lake Okeechobee further into the central and southern Everglades,” said Kominoski, the principal investigator for the Florida Coastal Everglades Long-Term Ecological Research Program. “If they are not going to proceed with building the reservoir sometime in the next year, then we can’t move water out of Lake O in a staging pattern.”
Kominoski says these changes are pivotal for the survival of the Everglades ecosystem during the dry season. Coastal wetlands must be flushed with freshwater to maintain carbon dioxide uptake and storage.
However, legislators supporting the bill refute claims the bill threatens reservoir development. They argue the Biden administration is responsible for not specifying how to spend the recently announced $1.1 billion in infrastructure funds for Everglades restoration.
The bill being considered by the Senate today requires the South Florida Water Management District to define how much water should be channeled from Lake Okeechobee to the glades. The intention is to redirect water distribution to sugar cane farms rather than wetlands.
The bill, filed by Republican Sen. Ben Albritton, was approved by a 16-to-4 vote. But DeSantis denounced the bill as an attempt to deprioritize the EAA reservoir project.
“SB 2508 is being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark,” said DeSantis.