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FLOODING FARMS? Everglades Project worries some Clewiston ranchers

Local rancher voices worries over potential flooding and land use impacts of a $3.4 billion environmental project
Posted at 6:40 PM, Mar 14, 2024

CLEWISTON, Fla. — In the Western Everglades, just south of Clewiston, a major environmental restoration project is in the works. The Western Everglades Restoration Project, which promises to enhance water quality in the western glades, is facing scrutiny from the community - particularly from those whose livelihoods are intertwined with the land.

Preserving the land is a big priority for many in Hendry County.

That’s why Heather Cleckler, a cattle rancher whose ranch lies in the heart of the project area, says she has mixed feelings about the restoration plan.

“We do think it should be restored, but we don’t think the land that is here, that’s a separate ecosystem, should be sacrificed,” said Cleckler

The project, which involves backfilling canals near Cleckler's ranch, is designed to improve hydration, repair ecological connectivity, reduce wildfires, and restore nutrient conditions in the area. However, Cleckler fears these changes could cause problems for her ranch.

“Our concern is that it’s going to flood - and I know their models and computers say it won’t flood, but a computer doesn’t know. It doesn’t live here. I gathered cows last month and my horse was belly deep in water and that’s before they plug the canals. So, if they plug those canals this is going to be underwater,” Cleckler explained.

Fox 4 reached out to the South Florida Water Management for an interview but the timing didn't work out in time for this report.

The district is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The project documents show they’ve been studying the area since 2016 to take flooding concerns into consideration. I also reached out to the Seminole Tribe, because they have land in the project area as well. In a statement, they said this project is “vital to the practice of traditional ways of life and preservation of Seminole culture.”

“The whole plan looks good, and everybody seems to be on board with it. It’s just this part that we’re begging them to do something different,” Cleckler noted -pointing out that there have been meetings for public comment where she’s presented alternatives.

“The whole point is to send water south, but they won’t open the gates to send water south,” said Cleckler.

Congress is expected to approve the project by May, and it’s expected to cost $3.4 billion dollars. The Water Management District says it will monitor areas where people have land to see if there’s flooding.

“It just has to be done right. The Everglades in Southwest Florida is just too sensitive to get it wrong,” Cleckler emphasized.