By Craig Pittman, Times Staff Writer
In Print: Thursday, August 11, 2011
The Obama administration will announce today that it’s spending $100 million buying development rights from Central Florida ranchers and farmers to aid wetland restoration on nearly 24,000 acres in the Northern Everglades.
By purchasing the rights, the government prevents the ranchers from paving over the land — and also clears the way for restoring the wetlands that once carpeted the landscape.
Restoring the wetlands would slow the flow of nutrient pollution now pouring into Lake Okeechobee — pollution that 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 3 feet of nutrient-packed ooze.
This is the largest single conservation outlay the U.S. Department of Agriculture has ever made to a single state, according to USDA officials.
In an interview Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that by reviving historic wetlands, the money would help create new habitat for wildlife, aiding in the promotion of Florida tourism.
The announcement is part of an increasing shift by the Obama administration to focus on the headwaters of the River of Grass — the area stretching from the suburbs of Orlando to the shores of Lake Okeechobee — rather than just on the Everglades.
Until the 1920s, Lake Okeechobee overflowed regularly. Rain south of Orlando would swell the twisting Kissimmee River, which fed the lake. When the lake overflowed, it would send water rolling into the Everglades, forming the River of Grass.
But ranchers persuaded the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to straighten the Kissimmee so they could have bigger, drier pastures. That sent polluted water — from the ranches and from the sprawling suburbs — shooting into the lake. When the corps released water from the lake into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, fish quickly developed fin rot and other diseases.
The corps is now restoring the Kissimmee’s bends, but has miles to go. The USDA hopes to restore the wetlands that once filtered contaminants out of the water flowing into the lake, as well as recharging the underground aquifer and storing flood water.
Last year, the USDA announced it would spend $89 million buying development rights on 26,000 acres along Fisheating Creek, which flows into the lake. In February the Interior Department announced plans for turning 150,000 acres north of the lake into the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge.
“We applaud what they’re doing for this landscape,” said Keith Fountain of the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group that also works on buying up environmentally sensitive land.
By purchasing only the development rights, the USDA avoids paying full price for the property it needs for the 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.
This is not federal money the state can reject. Private landowners enroll themselves in the program, and sign a contract directly with the USDA.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]