Group Seeks Economic Plan for Everglades' Communities

Environmental leaders on Feb. 18 urged Florida lawmakers to bring a greater sense of urgency to protecting the water supply for millions of residents and ensuring the economic health of a 16-county area, according to an Everglades Foundation press release.

The foundation said it believes it is imperative to acquire more than 180,000 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land in the Everglades Agricultural Area, but efforts must also include developing a strong financial plan for the communities of the region.

Representatives of the foundation testified before the House and Senate General Government Policy Committee regarding the U.S. Sugar land acquisition. Members of the business communities surrounding Lake Okeechobee were present to testify and share their concerns regarding the lack of urgency by lawmakers to establish an economic proposal for the residents of the 16-county area directly affected by the land purchase.

“This land purchase is the single most important investment in Florida’s history, but the residents of the Lake Okeechobee counties cannot be forgotten in this transaction,” said Nathaniel Reed, vice chair, Everglades Foundation. “Lake Okeechobee is one of the most polluted lakes in America and a major water supply to the Everglades. This public acquisition of extensive acreage in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee is a vital step towards restoring the Everglades and will create thousands of jobs in water infrastructure projects.

“With additional project planning and implementation, we will ultimately secure Florida’s environment and economy from the impacts of drought and flood,” said Reed.

The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) has identified its core mission, which is water management and flood control. It is the lawmakers’ responsibility to work cooperatively with the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development to create an economic plan to address the impact of the U.S. Sugar land purchase on the 16-county area and its residents, the press release said.

“Florida needs a serious push for job-creation,” said Kirk Fordham, the foundation's chief executive officer. “This investment has the potential to create more than 30,000 jobs for Floridians – that is a vital economic benefit from a project with unprecedented environmental significance.”

As part of Everglades restoration, there needs to be a complementary economic component to ensure the people of these counties have the right set of skills in place to engage in “shovel-ready” jobs. Although it is not SFWMD’s responsibility to write this plan, the district is part of a team and working with the impacted counties to identify land needs for economic development. So far, the SFWMD has slated more than 3,000 acres to transfer to local communities for industrial park development.