John Boy Auditorium in Clewiston was packed to standing room only Tuesday for a meeting about the Western Everglades Restoration Project (WERP). The project is at the start of a three year planning process, and the public scoping meeting allowed members of the public to give their input.
WERP is part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which includes 68 projects. It will be done simultaneously with the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Project (LOW) which will store and clean water north of the lake.
Clewiston officials at Tuesday’s meeting seemed cautiously optimistic about the project’s goals:
• Restore and improve seasonal hydroperiods and freshwater distribution to support a natural mosaic of wetland and upland habitat in the western Everglades ecosystem;
• Reestablish and improve sheetflow patterns, surface water depths, and durations in the study area to reduce soil subsidence and the frequency of damaging peat fires; and,
• Reduce water loss out of the natural system to prevent over-drainage and improve ground and surface water elevations.
Some at the meeting appeared frustrated that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) and South Florida Water Management District (SWFMD) officials could not provide details on the plan such as the exact amount of land that will be needed and how much of that land is already owned by the state. The preliminary study area is 920 square miles and includes the Big Cypress Preserve as well as land belonging to the Miccosukee Tribe and the Seminole Tribe.
Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor said the Clewiston community supports CERP. She said they support projects that are scientifically proven.
Unfortunately, she said, some activists are threatening the progress of CERP by demanding state funding to be allocated to other, unproven plans that involve buying land currently used for sugar cane farming.
“Our communities are not for sale,” Commissioner Taylor said.
Clewiston City Commissioner Mali Gardner asked how much of the land to be used for WERP is already owned by the state.
“I believe the CERP should be funded and completed,” she said, adding that she is especially concerned about the repairs needed to the Herbert Hoover Dike.
Clewiston Mayor Philip Roland called for water storage and cleaning north of Lake Okeechobee.
“The Kissimmee River Valley covers 5,500 square miles that all dump water into Lake Okeechobee,” he said.
“Until you control that 95 percent of the water that comes into Lake Okeechobee, you cannot control the south,” he said.
“Let Orlando and everything south share the adversity,” he said.
Paul McGeeHee of Glades Electric Co-op noted that part of the area under consideration for the WERP includes Glades Electric customers and infrastructure. He asked for assurance that the members of the co-op will not be on the hook for costs of moving the infrastructure.
“Please keep us in the loop,” Mr. McGeeHee said.
Vivian Haney, the reigning Miss Sugar, said taking farmland out of production would cost jobs, and could destroy the economy of the Clewiston community. She said the farmers support the science-based projects in CERP.
“It’s about time you are waking up,” said Bobby Billie of the Miccosukee Tribe. He said if they don’t preserve the natural land, there will be nothing left for future generations.