Water Farming Sometimes Drenched In Controversy

Jun 26, 2015

It doesn’t need fertilizer, pesticides, or require a back-breaking harvest. That’s why one of the most tempting new crops for Florida farmers is water. Environmentalists and the agricultural industry are pumped about a cheaper way to fight pollution and devastating droughts.

'Water Farming." sometimes controversial, involves the state paying growers and ranchers to store water on private land.

For citrus growers, it’s usually what’s above ground that counts. Months of sunshine and balmy weather, mild winters and a long growing season that come together to turn air and sunshine into a cash crop.

But it’s what’s beneath the surface of the flat woods terrain, a layer of natural sand filter and water-trapping clay,that can be a grower’s salvation when disease and natural disaster creep in. Peter McClure, owner of Double K Groves, Inc., says rather than liquidate, why not go liquid?

“As the disease greening, citrus greening, is killing our groves, we really don’t have an alternate crop. The beauty of water farming is we can plug these groves in sometimes just a matter of weeks or months.”

McClure is a native Floridian who grows citrus on about 50 acres in Lake County, just outside of the tiny town of Astatula. McClure earned a master naturalist designation from the University of Florida and works on water farming projects with other landowners he declines to name.

He says it’s a win-win for taxpayers and the environment. Instead of paying monster sums of taxpayer dollars on water projects, water farming is way to make the best use of land that’s already available.

“The state already has hundreds of thousands of acres of land and a lot of that land is designated to have reservoirs built on it. But what happens is they buy the land, the land goes off the tax rolls, and then they never have the money to build the reservoirs.”

When the state gets involved, land designated for water conservation can sit for more than 10 years without benefitting the environment, McClure says.

Stan Bronson, executive director of the Florida Earth Foundation, says water farming had a promising beginning.

“Back in the mid 2000’s, it was a program sponsored by the World Wild Life Fund and the South Florida Water Management District and I think about six or seven ranchers participated in it and it was proven feasible.”

Last week, the key word for Governor Rick Scott was South Florida Water Management District. Scott vetoed more than $30 million lawmakers wanted to spend on water farming, also known as “dispersed water management.”

Scott’s veto message essentially said that funding should not be coming from Tallahassee, but the water management district, which is funded by local property taxes. Bronson says that’s always been the debate.

“I think the issue is, how you pay for it. I think that it’s really worth looking in to. The issue is, show me the money.”

Everglades activists see water farming as a valuable component for cleaning polluted runoff bound for an already polluted Lake Okeechobee.

When the lake overflows, the phosphorous and nitrogen laden water causes toxic algae blooms in estuaries downstream of the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers.

Some of the water farming projects involve tens of thousands of acres of private property. South Florida agricultural giant Alico has the biggest, an agreement worth 120 million dollars over 11 years.

Audubon of Florida executive director Eric Draper agrees with Scott’s veto. He says Tallahassee lobbyists can push for water farming projects that don’t always bring the biggest bang for the buck.

“We weren’t big fans of the Alico project. I think I’m on the record as saying that. Because we couldn’t see where the benefit of spending that money was to the Everglades.”

Double K Groves owner Peter McClure says just because a water farming project is big doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. Meanwhile, the Florida Farm Bureau, a big supporter of the water farming, has vowed to do a better job convincing Scott to change his mind next year.