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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Overpaying for private water farms wrong approach

The Caulkins Citrus Co. in Martin County is being paid to retain 6,780 acre-feet of water at $76 per acre-foot. By contrast, an audit found putting the water on public land instead of private would cost the taxpayers just $8 per acre-foot.
The Caulkins Citrus Co. in Martin County is being paid to retain 6,780 acre-feet of water at $76 per acre-foot. By contrast, an audit found putting the water on public land instead of private would cost the taxpayers just $8 per acre-foot.
Published Apr. 3, 2015

No issue is more important to Florida than protecting its water, and state officials are making a mess of it. Legislators are ramming through a water bill that would lead to further waste of this precious resource. And as the Tampa Bay Times has reported, the state continues to overpay ranchers millions of dollars for water projects while refusing to buy farmland that could make a real difference in cleaning up all of South Florida.

The Florida Legislature waited until this year to act on the House's promise that Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, had a comprehensive approach for protecting the state's natural resources and meeting its water needs. But the legislation passed by the House (HB 7003) is a relief act for farmers and developers, not smart resource management. And the state is compounding the damage by failing to act more strategically to protect the health of the Everglades basin.

As the Times' Craig Pittman recently reported, the state is overpaying big agricultural operators millions of dollars to hold water on their property. These "mini-reservoirs" can help by catching and filtering pollutants before they flow to other waterways. But the program doesn't offer the environmental reach it needs. And the state is paying far more than it should to well-connected landowners when it makes more sense to host these reservoirs on state-owned property.

At issue is how to control the release of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee. When the lake gets too full, the federal agency in charge, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, dumps some of the water into the estuaries leading east and west, causing fish kills, algae blooms and environmental damage along both coasts.

The water farms are a piecemeal approach that provide only a fraction of the water storage the basin needs to effectively aid the lake cleanup effort. And the price the state is paying to hold water on private land is up to 15 times the cost of storing the water on public property. South Florida water managers have yet to determine the range of public property available, and an audit for the state predicted that the program would need another $17.5 million between 2018 and 2024. This looks like little more than corporate welfare for well-connected landowners, such as Alico, the nation's largest citrus producer. "They get a big chunk of money for doing nothing," said Tom Swihart, the former head of the state's water policy office.

A smarter move would be for the state to exercise its option to purchase 47,000 acres of U.S. Sugar property south of the lake before the October deadline. That would put this land in public hands, prevent an enormous planned commercial and residential development on the property, and pave the way for using the land as a relief for the lake by restoring the natural southerly flow of water to the Everglades.

The state also needs to look more aggressively to purchase property for storage. The South Florida Water Management District is undertaking that process now. Public storage land would be a more cost-efficient way to achieve the goals of increasing water flow and rehabilitating the basin's filtration system.

A costly and spotty strategy for cleaning up the lake that amounts to rewarding agribusiness for the sins of agribusiness makes no sense. And it's self-defeating in the face of a House bill that weakens antipollution efforts across millions of acres north of the lake. The state needs a more serious approach to what works. Privately owned water farms financed by taxpayers may play a role, but they are not a panacea, they do not operate in a vacuum and the overreliance on the private sector is wasteful.