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Florida Ranchers Help the Everglades. Coral Reefs and Lake Okeechobee

Posted by Gail Hendricks, NRCS, Florida in Conservation
Feb 21, 2017
One of the first FRESP project sites, as the water began to flow into the former grazing land.
One of the first FRESP project sites, as the water began to flow into the former grazing land.

Over 100 years ago, public agencies and private landowners began to transform central and south Florida. Then an extensive system of water management implemented in the 1930s and 1940s, including irrigation, flood control, canals and other structures, interrupted historic water flows to Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades.

In addition, urban development and agriculture have impacted water quality in the area. Reversing these changes requires coordination between government agencies, nonprofit organizations and private landowners.

In 2005, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) awarded a Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) to the World Wildlife Fund to lead a coalition of environmental organizations, state and federal agencies, ranchers and researchers in implementing a five-year pilot project to field-test a Payment for Environmental Services (PES) program. Another CIG was awarded in 2008 for the second phase of the project.

The project, named  Florida Ranchlands Environmental Services Project (FRESP), was a market-based incentive program where ranchers in south Florida were paid to manage and flood formerly drained pastures and wetland areas during certain times of the year, and to retain water on their grazing lands.

The project proved that formerly drained grazing lands can remain in agricultural production and restore a natural drainage flow—and that ranchers were willing to reduce livestock production to  provide better water quality.

To expand the efforts of FRESP, a more permanent project, the Northern Everglades – Payment for Environmental Services (NE-PES) is now being implemented in coordination with NRCS, the South Florida Water Management District, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, World Wildlife Fund and the University of Florida.

A total of 14 proposals were submitted by ranchers within the northern Everglades to provide water retention on grazing lands; eight were approved by the water management district as new NE-PES projects.

NE-PES is one of the nation’s largest market-based payment-for-environmental-services programs. By modifying the way water is managed on private grazing lands in South Florida, we can achieve more natural fluctuations in water levels and lessen the need to release harmful discharges to Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and the state’s coral reefs.

In addition, NE-PES provides another source of income for ranchers, helping keep ranchland in ranching in a rapidly developing area.

Find out more about Conservation Innovation Grants

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Category/Topic: Conservation

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