WEST PALM BEACH (CBS4) – The U.S. government has committed to spending some big cash to help with restoration of the Florida Everglades.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it will use $100 million to acquire permanent easements from eligible landowners and help restore wetlands on nearly 24,000 acres of agricultural land in the Northern Everglades Watershed.
"This is an important day. It's an important day for the United States. It's an important day for Florida," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack of the effort to reduce the amount of surface water leaving the land. The goal is to slow water runoff and the concentration of nutrients entering the public water management system and ultimately Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.
The USDA plans to purchase these permanent easements from eligible private landowners, and assist with wetland restoration, in Glades, Hendry, Highlands and Okeechobee counties.
Vilsack said the project will preserve jobs and natural resources during a difficult economic time.
He called the land owners key partners in the effort. "After all, their livelihood is dependent on the environment," he said as he prepared for a swamp buggy tour at the Winding Waters Natural Area in West Palm Beach.
There are roughly 4 million acres in the northern Everglades, where they are providing the restoration.
Including the money announced Thursday, USDA said it will have provided a total of $189 million in Wetlands Reserve Program funding during the past two fiscal years to help farmers acquire easements and restore wetlands in the Northern Everglades. The total amount of land covered by the funding is roughly 50,000 acres.
According to the agency, under the voluntary program, landowners essentially sell their development rights to land and place their land in a conservation easement that permanently maintains that land as agriculture and open space. To be eligible, landowners must have had ownership of the land for the last seven years, be in compliance with wetland conservation provisions and meet income limitations.
The project is expected to address the Everglades restoration goal of improved water quality, quantity and seasonal distribution. It also will form a conservation corridor from the Kissimmee River to Everglades National Park.
"We all benefit when we conserve our natural resources," Vilsack said.
The entire Everglades ecosystem has suffered from years of dikes, dams and diversions to make way for homes and farms across crowded South Florida. Development and farming have also polluted the water.
The state and federal government have been entrenched in a decades-long effort to clean the pollutants and restore some natural water movement that used to flow in a shallow sheet from the Kissimmee River basin near Orlando down through Everglades National Park and into Florida Bay.
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