Everglades restoration and its effect on farmers was the topic of a panel discussion at the annual Farm City Luncheon held Wednesday, Nov. 14 at the South Florida Fairgrounds.
Central Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce CEO Jaene Miranda pointed out that Palm Beach County’s agriculture industry leads the nation in the production of sugar cane and fresh sweet corn, while leading the state in the production of bell peppers, rice, radishes, cucumbers, Chinese vegetables, eggplants and herbs.
Total sales for last season were estimated at $1.75 billion with an economic impact of more than $2.7 billion. “That’s a tremendous industry here in Palm Beach County,” Miranda said.
Frank Bernardino, former director of state legislative affairs for the South Florida Water Management District, moderated the panel discussion, which included Martha Musgrove, director of the Florida Wildlife Federation and former assistant editor of the Miami Herald; Ernie Barnett, Everglades policy director for the SFWMD; and Tom MacVicar of MacVicar Consulting.
Bernardino said many people travel to Florida from all over the world just to see the Everglades.
“It is truly a treasure that all of us I know care about and want to protect,” he said. “Issues surrounding the Everglades are very complicated. The purpose of today’s meeting is to bring you up to speed on where we are in some of the things the environmental community is engaged in, what some of the agencies restoring the Everglades are doing, and what the farming community is doing toward the protection of the Everglades.”
Musgrove said the Everglades is the distinguishing feature of South Florida.
“When you come to South Florida, you have to get used to the rainy season and the dry season, and that’s a very critical distinction,” she said. “Many of our snowbird friends leave during the rainy season, so they don’t really have an appreciation.”
Protecting the Everglades is crucial in protecting the water supply, Musgrove explained. “We had to do something to save the Everglades because of the natural features of it, and also because it is a large, large storage area for water. At the same time, you can’t do something about it and ignore the urban communities that have surrounded it.”
This requires both protecting the Everglades while also keeping South Florida’s flood protection system in place. “That keeps us from floating away into the ocean,” Musgrove said.
Barnett said the key to Everglades policy is sustainability.
“We have a very vibrant economy in South Florida, and that economy is very much dependent on water,” he said. “Whether it’s water for the natural system, water for agricultural production or water for the urban environment, water is our lifeblood. There’s about 5.8 million people who rely on water that comes directly out of the Everglades every day. It is the main source of water that recharges our aquifer.”
Barnett agreed that the intrinsic value of the Everglades is important. “It is an economic engine in and of itself, and people will need to understand how the ability to have the tourism and ecotourism [makes] people come and experience the joy that I feel when I go out in the Everglades.”
MacVicar, a professional engineer and fourth-generation Floridian, spent 16 years with the SFWMD before starting his own consulting firm. “I only do one thing, and that’s water,” he said. “If all you do in South Florida is water, you do the Everglades. It kind of defines the story.”
MacVicar said zooming to South Florida on Google Earth gives a clear perspective. “The area is defined by water projects,” he said. “There are nice clean lines on the satellite photos that show the Everglades, where water is stored in the Everglades, it shows the boundary around the lake. It shows where people decided there should be farming in the Everglades ag area, and it shows east of the Everglades where people thought urban development would take place.”
He said the picture reflects a plan that people such as his grandfather and great-grandfather came up with that reflects a balanced picture. “There were plans that they looked at that were much more destructive to the Everglades than the one that was built,” MacVicar said.
Bernardino said that farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area have dramatically reduced phosphorus farm runoff over the past 16 years, which has reduced the amount of phosphorus being released into stormwater treatment areas to 25 parts per billion, which he said is cleaner than rainwater.
“While most people would claim that this has been a tremendous success, we still see that the federal government and the environmental community are pushing for more,” he said. “What is the real issue? Is it to restore the remaining Everglades ecosystem to mimic the timing, flow and distribution of water as it was in the original ecosystem or to restore the Everglades to its original footprint from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay?”
MacVicar said there is no real consensus on what the vision is. “If you look at the environmental components in South Florida, the Loxahatchee Refuge doesn’t want the same design and restoration that Everglades National Park wants,” he said. “Biscayne Bay on the east side of Miami-Dade County doesn’t want what Everglades National Park wants on the west side of the county. Their goals are in conflict with each other.”
Barnett said his agency has tried to address some of those conflicts, but there are difficult challenges to overcome. “The fact of the matter is the flood control projects were built,” he said. “It was authorized in 1947, and allowed for the development that took place in South Florida.”
Barnett said a notion of restoring the 4 million acres of Everglades to its original state is not reasonable, logical, rational or attainable. “What is attainable is the 2 million acres that are left. How can we best re-create the hydrologic conditions, the ecologic conditions and the biological conditions that existed prior to the drainage?” he said.
Musgrove said the drainage system that Florida depends on today divided various segments of the Everglades. “At one time, the original Everglades was water as far as you could see from Orlando all the way to Florida Bay,” she said. “When you compartmentalized the Everglades, you created vast reservoirs that are known as conservation areas to the north, and you channelized the Kissimmee River, and you diked Lake Okeechobee, you forever altered parts of the system.”
Musgrove said there are 68 different projects in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
“Everybody involved wanted some segment of restoration for their systems,” she said, pointing out that some areas, such as Everglades National Park, wants as low as 10 parts per billion of phosphorus, while other areas can tolerate 25 or as high as 50 ppb.
“Farmers get hit very hard because they’re in the upper end,” she said. “They’re right in the path, so we have to clean up farm water in order to get into the Everglades, and then we have to clean it up more in order to get it into Everglades National Park.”
ABOVE: Panelists Martha Musgrove, Ernie Barnett and Tom MacVicar.