Okeechobee ranch owners help water quality and environment

Okeechobee land owners to store water for state

OKEECHOBEE, Fla. - Florida is looking to the state's ranch owners to help improve water quality and the wetlands. Several ranch owners will be paid to store water on their land. State officials and residents are calling it a "win-win" situation.

"The birds like it out here already. I imagine they'll like it a little better," said Woody Larson.

Larson has owned Dixie Ranch for decades. He's part of Florida's $600 million cattle industry.

"We've had the property 40 years and it's been ranch land all that time," he explained.

Now, Larson and seven other ranch owners will be paid $150 an acre annually to store water on their land north of Lake Okeechobee for the state. They signed an agreement with the state on Tuesday that's designed to benefit them while saving the state money and helping the environment. The ten year deal will cost about $720 thousand a year, about half what the state might have to pay to buy the land outright.

"When you look at the benefit that we get by not having to pay for the property and keeping it in private ownership, it's a great cost savings for the district," said South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Melissa Meeker.

Larson will dedicate 800 acres to the project, which will still give him room to keep his cattle business and stay on the county tax rolls. Larson, like many ranch owners, has stored water for years. Under this new agreement, they'll store more.

"Instead of six inches now, it may be a couple of feet deep," he said. "We've been in a five year drought in South Florida so that's going to be good for the land."

Ultimately, it's good for the water and the environment. Less run-off means better water quality for Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and estuaries.

"Clearly, there's a recognition that the Everglades is a fabulous ecological treasure," explained Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard. "It is an important drinking water source for South Florida and it's also an important thing we need to preserve."

This is the first formal agreement the state has done; however, if it proves successful, they hope to add similar projects in other parts of the state.

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