When sugar cane is no longer profitable and when the population of Florida starts expanding toward the center of the peninsula, homes could pop up as the newest crop in the Everglades Agricultural Area.
Developers are already looking to three areas within the Everglades Agricultural Area, or EAA, for future housing projects, and that pressure is making environmental groups nervous.
For all the criticism the sugar industry gets for its presence in the Everglades, homes would create a much bigger barrier to restoring healthy water flow and habitat within Lake Okeechobee and the coastal estuaries, said Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida.
"The problem is that the EAA is uniquely located right in the middle of the Everglades system in the historic flowway between Lake Okeechobee and the rest of the Everglades. It was historically the River of Grass there, so if you put a lot of people in there you run into significant problems," Draper said.
Agriculture south of Lake Okeechobee is entirely dependent on an intricate flood control network that was built into the system about 60 years ago. The system that works for agriculture, though, could be a lot trickier and expensive when homes and people are entered into the equation.
People require advanced flood control and advanced technology to clean wastewater. Farmers, especially those who work in the EAA, have to meet stringent water quality requirements and use farming techniques that reduce stormwater runoff and fertilizer use.
"Your typical nutrients on an urban lawn are more significant than nutrients applied on agriculture," Draper said. "Anyone can go down to Wal-Mart and buy 50 pounds of concentrated fertilizer and go dump them on their yard regardless of the need."
On the east coast, near Wellington, Florida Crystals has contemplated selling about 16,000 acres of its sugar lands for development. Just west of Clewiston, U.S. Sugar plans to sell 500 acres of sugar and pasture land to Bonita Bay.
Belle Glade is also considering annexing about 700 acres of EAA land for development.
Lisa Interlandi, regional counsel for the Environmental Law and Land Use Center, said Everglades restoration projects are much too premature for developers or anyone else to be considering development within the agricultural area.
"The whole Everglades restoration plan, all that planning that's been done over the last decade and beyond, has been based on agriculture continuing in the EAA," Interlandi said. "Because of different stormwater, drainage, pollution issues associated with houses, it would pretty much make all the planning that has been done for the restoration invalid."
Interlandi and Draper both said research is showing more storage capacity will be needed for restoration than originally thought. Expanding development south of the lake, they said, would take that land out of the picture for water storage potential.
"You start putting homes and neighborhoods and development out there, the restoration plan becomes a lot less likely to become successful," Interlandi said.
Interlandi also said municipalities and counties need to start thinking about the way their land-use planning affects the cost of land.
Increasing densities near lands slated for Everglades restoration projects drives up the cost of restoration.
"That's not just in the EAA. That's everywhere," Interlandi said. "Local governments very easily have the ability to price land, make it not affordable for restoration."
Without adequate storage around Lake Okeechobee, the coastal estuaries will continue to be hammered by dirty water from the lake in the summer and starved of needed water in the winter.
Depending on water storage needs, Interlandi said, development might work in certain places, but no one knows where. She said an analysis needs to be done first.
A year ago, Audubon produced its own vision for the agricultural area, which included 1 million acre-feet of water storage as opposed to the 360,000 acre-feet of storage the restoration plans rely upon.
The vision also calls for sustainable agriculture in the Everglades Agricultural Area, whether that turns out to be sugarcane, cattle ranching, vegetable crops, crops for alternative energy or rice.
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"The plan for the EAA should be for the goals of restoration first," Draper said.
Draper said returning the EAA to Everglades is probably not practical because of cost. The land would not automatically revert back to sawgrass prairies without intense management to raise the elevation of the agricultural area and to combat invasive plants like melaleuca, cattails and torpedo grass.
Paul Gray, Lake Okeechobee watershed science coordinator for Audubon, said the EAA sits in a bowl now because agriculture and drainage have exposed the area's muck soils to air. The soils have oxidized and shrunk, leaving the elevation of the agricultural area much lower than the Everglades and the lake.
Removing the Hoover Dike and letting the water flow as it did 100 years ago would just drain Lake Okeechobee and create a new lake in the EAA, Gray said.
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As soils continue to disappear, sugar might not be the most profitable crop in the agricultural area, but Draper said agriculture should be encouraged.
Malcolm "Bubba" Wade, vice president of U.S. Sugar, said his company is less worried about subsidence that free trade agreements. Despite the changing global economy, Wade said U.S. Sugar plans to continue growing sugar well into the future.
As the need for affordable housing grows stronger, however, U.S. Sugar will sell parts of its farmland, Wade said.
"In our long-term plans, so far right now, we have nothing in them as far as development ... other than making available land around the local communities," Wade said.
He said his company is working with Clewiston on a potential project to build affordable homes on about 300 acres.
He said people are buying homes in Clewiston and commuting to the coasts because homes are less expensive in the rural area. That migration is driving up Clewiston's housing prices.
He said the pressure for development in agricultural areas will continue to mount until coastal communities start addressing housing problems in their own back yards.
"If we don't figure out something in the coastal areas, some of that development will come to the fringes of the EAA," Wade said.