USDA Pledges $100 Million for Everglades Watershed Conservation
USDA officials arrived in the heart of Florida last week to announce a significant conservation commitment: the administration has offered $100 million toward a program benefiting Florida’s distinct landscapes, farmers and ranchers, and drinking water quality for millions of Americans. Water scarcity coupled with the program’s success last year led the USDA to strengthen its efforts to preserve the Northern Everglades watershed on privately-owned lands. Florida leaders have lauded the funding as a gain for both economy and ecology. “This is a win-win that helps restore the Northern Everglades while allowing Florida ranching traditions to continue,” said Senator Bill Nelson.
Intense development in central Florida has contributed over recent decades to runoff and nutrient concentration in the Everglades watershed, which drains millions of acres into the celebrated “River of Grass.” Fragmentation and industrial pollution of the watershed impact water quality for cities like Miami and damage the health of the vast Everglades—America’s only subtropical wetlands and the home of iconic species like the Florida panther, the American crocodile, and the Everglades snail kite.
To combat the deterioration of the Everglades watershed, USDA officials embarked last fiscal year on an effort to conserve the region’s northern areas. There, in the complex matrix of cypress swamps, piney flatwoods, and freshwater marsh savannas, many Floridians still farm and raise cattle on privately-owned lands. Using money from the USDA’s Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP), officials invited landowners to sell the development rights of their properties, which allows continued management and agricultural practices but places land in permanent conservation easements. These easements provide crucial connectivity between public and private lands, facilitating water filtration and wildlife movement. Private lands are a necessary element of landscape resiliency in the face of climate change, and the Obama administration’s offer is a renewed commitment to a program that may provide a model for how they are incorporated into conservation efforts.