Environmental groups are raising concerns about looming budget cuts at the South Florida agency that leads Everglades restoration.
Potential cutbacks unveiled Thursday by the South Florida Water Management District include selling off public land, scaling back environmental monitoring and research, and delaying or scrapping construction projects.
The district faces $128 million in cuts – more than 30 percent of its budget – mandated by the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott.
Reprioritizing pending construction projects could mean more delays for already overdue Everglades restoration.
The district also is considering selling off some of its 1.3 million acres, acquired for conservation or water storage and treatment projects.
Environmental groups have questioned selling parting with land acquired to benefit South Florida’s water supply as well as the environment.
"I just don’t think that’s a good place to find a lot of money," said Drew Martin of the Sierra Club.
Aside from selling off land, the district is considering lessening its efforts to keep exotic plants spreading across public property. Melaleuca, Brazilian pepper and other exotic plants squeeze out native habitat vital to wildlife.
The district is also considering scaling back its security presence on public land, potentially opening the door to poaching, dumping and other unauthorized use.
That raises concerns for those who follow the rules and use district land for hunting, fishing and bird watching.
"You don’t want to lose that," Newton Cook of United Water Fowlers told district board members Thursday. "It gives you the best P.R. that you get."
The district’s budget squeeze raises question about the effects on stormwater storage and treatment facilities long planned for Everglades restoration.
An Everglades restoration plan agreed to between the state and federal government in 2000 identified dozens of construction projects planned to help revive the suffering River of Grass and boost South Florida’s drinking water supply.
Environmental groups that helped craft the plan don’t want to see this round of district budget cuts torpedo restoration projects already behind schedule.
"We can’t finish this one and that one and call it done," said Dawn Shirreffs of the National Parks Conservation Association. "Then the rest of the system fails."
On Thursday, new district Executive Director Melissa Meeker tried to reassure environmentalists worried about budget cuts by outlining a list of Everglades restoration projects that she intended to proceed with during the budget year that begins Oct.1.
Those priority-projects include expanding stormwater treatment areas and striking deals to store more stormwater on agricultural land. Also on the to-do list: the C-111 spreader canal, to help redirect water to the Everglades; the Biscayne Bay coastal wetlands project; and efforts to return Picayune Strand, a failed development in southwest Florida, to native habitat.
Items left off Meeker’s priority list included what to do with 26,800 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land that the district last year bought for $197 million for Everglades restoration.
Also in doubt is the timetable for a proposal to turn an unfinished reservoir in southwestern Palm Beach County, which already cost taxpayers nearly $280 million, into a smaller water storage or treatment area.
The potential budget cuts unveiled Thursday were just proposals that will come back to the district board in July for formal action. The district has to submit a proposed budget to the governor and Legislature by Aug. 1. The district board takes its final vote on its tax rate and budget in September.
The new governor’s leadership shakeup at the district and the Legislature’s forced district budget cuts have agency officials refocusing on “core” functions of flood control, water supply and Everglades restoration, while looking for ways to scale back costs and other activities.
"We are certainly at a point of change and belt-tightening," new district Board Chairman Joe Collins said.