Environmentalists are sounding the alarm over the South Florida Water Management District potentially shrinking its vast real estate holdings.
Audubon of Florida and the Sierra Club are among the environmental groups raising concerns that budget cuts have the district selling off too much public land once slated for restoration or conservation.
The district, which leads Everglades restoration, is considering selling off 3,000 acres across South Florida that the agency considers surplus.
Of particular concerns to the environmental groups is the district possibly getting rid of about 1,000 acres along Bird Road in Miami-Dade County, near Everglades National Park.
The district’s plan is to sell unused land and then use the money to build overdue water projects, such as water storage or treatment areas that are part of Everglades restoration.
The district owns about 1.4 million acres across 16 counties, from Orlando to the Keys.
The district board plans to discuss the surplus proposal on Thursday.
Selling land has become a bigger part of an agency downsizing imposed by the Florida Legislature, which shrunk the district’s allowable budget by about 30 percent.
That prompted more than 100 layoffs and has the district refocusing on its "core" missions of flood control, water supply and restoration.
"What are our most urgent needs? … What are the priorities here?" asked district Board Member Daniel O'Keefe, referring to what land should end up on the surplus list. O’Keefe heads the district lands committee.
The federal government or environmental groups could acquire the Bird Road property, district Board Member Daniel DeLisi said.
Holding onto environmentally sensitive land with no plans to build there may no longer be considered part of the district’s core missions, DeLisi said.
"I’m not sure it’s the district’s responsibility to preserve wetlands in an ownership way," DeLisi said at a board meeting Wednesday.
But Jane Graham of Audubon of Florida pointed out that state law specifically authorizes the water management district to acquire land for conservation.
"This is within your mission," Graham told the board Wednesday.
Environmental groups have argued that conserving existing wetlands and restoring other environmentally significant land is necessary to wildlife animal habitat and help recharge South Florida water supplies.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times