Audubon of Florida applauded the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) announcement at a press conference in Kissimmee today that it will dedicate funds to help restore a substantial tract of privately-owned wetlands north of Lake Okeechobee.
The largest undertaking in the history of the Wetlands Reserve Program, USDA will provide funding for agricultural landowners to store water and restore wetlands on their properties. One of the greatest challenges to restoring Lake Okeechobee’s health, preventing harmful estuary discharges, storing enough water for droughts, and cleaning water, is finding enough beneficial places to store valuable rain water. This project funds such storage capacity in the area of the Fisheating Creek tributary, truly a monumental effort.
“This is a pioneering approach to achieving ecological benefits in a cost effective way, without displacing agricultural interests,” said Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida Director of Advocacy. “By restoring these wetlands with the assistance of USDA, we create healthy habitat and stimulate abundant wildlife populations even when public conservation land acquisition is not an option.”
Fisheating Creek is the last free-flowing tributary to Lake Okeechobee—and home to some of the most pristine habitats in central Florida. The Wetlands Reserve Program will help enhance and protect the region and serve to connect lands in a wildlife corridor between inland natural areas and coastal natural areas, including conservation lands in Babcock Ranch.
“Redirecting government agency efforts to restore the hydrology and water quality of the Northern Everglades has long been one of our goals,” Lee said. “Cooperative projects with landowners and the acquisition of easements is more cost effective, and more likely to receive broad public support, than conventional efforts to manage water through large engineered public works projects in this area.”
USDA’s easement purchase coupled with nearby efforts of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) to establish a cooperative dispersed storage project with Lykes Brothers on 16,000 acres of Nicodemus Slough will help re-establish a more natural water table and restore wetlands on nearly 45,000 acres on the northwest shoreline of Lake Okeechobee. Audubon and other Everglades advocates celebrate this important partnership between USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, The Nature Conservancy and the SFWMD to restore and manage the property.