Driving through one of Florida’s man-made wetlands doesn’t feel like a man-made experience at all.
It feels like a day in the Everglades, with similar plant and wildlife and tourists and recreation seekers from all over the world.
The wetlands are known as stormwater treatment areas, or STAs, clean phosphorous out of water coming out of agricultural areas.
The South Florida Water Management district maintains 57,000 acres of STA’s south of Lake Okeechobee and north of Everglades National Park. They cost Florida taxpayers around 2 billion dollars over the last 25 years.
But the district and leading environmental scientists say it was money well spent.
Water that is released from Lake Okeechobee heads down the Caloosahatchee River on the west coast and the St. Lucie River on the East Coast. The freshwater releases have been blamed for harmful algal blooms on both coasts leading to legislative efforts to store and move more water south to the Florida Everglades.
Federal regulation requires any water that flows into Everglades National Park to meet a water quality standard of ten parts per billion of phosphorous.
That’s where the STA’s come in.
The wetlands are cleaning millions of gallons of agricultural runoff water every week, often meeting that federal standard for water quality.
“They work spectacularly well. It tells me we could use another 100,000 acres of them,” said Dr. William Mitsch, an FGCU wetland researcher and one-time winner of the coveted Stockholm Water Prize for his research on wetlands.
Mitsch has suggested the district consider investing in additional STA’s rather than reservoir storage south of Lake Okeechobee.
But the district said getting land to build more wetlands is increasingly difficult.
The area south of Lake Okeechobee is home to one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world, producing about half the sugarcane in the United States and a large portion of the nation’s winter vegetables.
“We are the salad bowl of the United States,” said Florida Rep. Rick Roth (R- Palm Beach).
Roth who is also a sugar and vegetable farmer said encroaching on more agriculture land to build additional STA’s would cripple farmers and lead to a rise in the cost of food.
“The way the atmosphere is now in the agriculture areas, there is no incentive to have their land acquired. They don’t want it acquired. They’ve been very vocal about that,” said water management district spokesperson Randy Smith.