$50 million in funding allows progress on Lake Okeechoebee water storage facilities

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South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD)’s executive director says he appreciates a new funding surge for the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP), calling the work “critical for the health of Lake Okeechobee.”

Florida’s legislature had earlier in the year approved $50 million in annual funding for LOWRP, including money to move forward with construction on water storage facilities north of Lake Okeechobee.

Drew Bartlett spoke before the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee on Dec. 1 as lawmakers prepare for the 2022 Legislative Session, Florida Politics reported.

“Northern storage is so critical,” Bartlett told lawmakers. “It is important for the health of the lake. It is important for the health of the estuaries. And we are really excited to have the support from you and the Governor on making this happen.”

Bartlett said the funding package approved last Session — paired with money OK’d in previous years under Gov. Ron DeSantis — means money is no obstacle in getting LOWRP and other restoration projects completed, which will aim to improve water quality across southern Florida.

“We’ve seen so much support from the Governor and the Legislature for comprehensive Everglades restoration, including Lake Okeechobee restoration, that we’ve scheduled this out and it’s unconstrained from a cost standpoint,” Bartlett said.

While construction on water storage components can move forward, Bartlett did say wetlands restoration projects, which are part of LOWRP, have not been progressing as swiftly due to issues in acquiring the necessary land.

“In the plan, there’s 5,900 acres of restored wetlands. There’s two sites: Kissimmee River and Paradise Run,” Bartlett said.

“Basically, we’ve been getting appropriations from the Legislature for the past three years to start the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project. Part of that is contacting the landowners. We own land in the Kissimmee River center — a good bit of it, not all of it. So we’re meeting with landowners in that one and the Paradise Run to talk to them about land swaps, potential acquisitions and so forth. But that’s the first step in wetland restoration. And so we’re engaged in those conversations now.”

Those conversations have not been fruitful as of yet, Bartlett said. “We haven’t executed any agreements yet on wetlands restoration, but we hope to in the near future.”

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