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Everglades Foundation’s Eric Eikenberg presses case at Capitol for land buy

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Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, says the Florida residents affected by discharges from Lake Okeechobee need to let state leaders know about their concerns.

Eikenberg is at the Capitol this week meeting with House and Senate leaders including House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner.

He’s trying to get state leaders to buy U.S. Sugar Corp. land for a reservoir to store water for Everglades restoration. However, one Senate committee chairman, Republican Wilton Simpson of Trilby, said the state is looking at other options.

Some water now being discharged from Lake Okeechobee flows into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, where it smothers seagrass and other aquatic life and disrupts local tourism.

“You have Realtors,” Eikenberg said. “You have chambers of commerce. You have local businesses.”

“The people that are suffering from the current flow of water — they’re the ones that are calling, that are writing, that are coming up here walking the halls,” he said. “If we’re going to be successful those are the ones who are going to make it happen — not me.”

Environmental groups have been pushing the state to exercise an option that expires in October to buy 46,800 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land. The company agreed to sell the land in 2010 but reportedly opposes the sale and wants to build 18,000 homes there.

Crisafulli, a Republican from Merritt Island, has said the state doesn’t need to own more land despite voter approval of Amendment 1. The initiative provides $757 million in fiscal year 2015-16 for water and land conservation.

But Eikenberg said the issue is not about buying land for the sake of buying land — as he said a University of Florida study pointed out last week.

“When you have an urgent strategic purchase, give it the time of day,” he said. “And if the will of the decision makers is to not go there, fine. But give it its day in the sun to be debated and be discussed.”

Eikenberg said he also was meeting with Sens. Simpson, Charlie Dean and David Simmons — all Republican committee chairmen — as well as state Rep. Mark Pafford, the House Democratic leader from West Palm Beach.

Sugar farmers have said that it’s important to finish projects that already have been started, echoing Gov. Rick Scott at times.

“This lobbying effort by the Everglades Foundation appears to be an attempt to stay relevant after Everglades restoration is completed,” U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said Wednesday.

Simpson said Wednesday he’s not sure the state needs to buy the U.S. Sugar land.

“At the end of the day I think more water will have to ultimately flow south,” he said. “How we get there is up for debate.”

He added, “There’s got to be other (options) that can be considered.”

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee. 

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