Agri Leader

FDACS outlines $26 million water initiative

Ever since he took the reins of Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), Agriculture Commissioner Adam H. Putnam has stressed the critical importance of water management and conservation - and supported his commitment with resources.

Now he is asking the legislature for $26 million in new funding to continue his aggressive and innovative initiatives.

Rich Budell, director of FDACS's Office of Agricultural Water Policy, explained why the new funding is so vital to the state's economic interests.

"It's critical that if we're going to expand our economy and grow jobs and continue to feed a diverse population that has expectations of a certain quantity and quality of food, in the right places at the right times, that we be as innovative and efficient as we can possibly be in terms of how we produce that food," Budell said. "Water is a key component of the day-to-day work of and affluence of our agricultural industry. We wouldn't have the number one orange crop or watermelon crop or the number two tomato, pepper or cucumbers crops if it weren't for our access to and management of the adequate quantities of fresh water required to produce those commodities. That's the bottom line."

At the same time, Budell said, there is an ethical responsibility for the state's agricultural industry to be the best possible steward of the land by being as efficient and careful as possible in water use and related issues such as conservation and nutrient applications.

Of the $26 being requested from the legislature, $15 million is intended for use in the Lake Okeechobee and Caloosahatchee River and St. Lucie River and estuaries watersheds, the area

north, east and west of Lake Okeechobee.

"A portion of that money," Budell said, "will be used for our routine best management practices (BMP) cost share program for things like fencing cattle out of waterways, placing or enhancing a landowner's ability to manage storm water by putting in water control structures such as swales."

FDACS will also use some of the money to support the Istokpoga Marsh Watershed Improvement District, just south of Lake Istokpoga. "That's an area of intense agricultural activity," Budell said, "where we're working with the landowners and [water management officials] to put in additional water storage and storm water management features that will allow them to recycle more water and reduce their discharges, thereby reducing load to Lake Okeechobee."

A total of $5 million will be focused specifically on programs in areas located north of the I-4 corridor, through the Big Bend and into regional spring sheds. That area extends west of the St. John's River and into the Panhandle.

FDACS will continue to work with water management districts and Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to prioritize agricultural-related land use and water issues.

The goal is to implement more so-called crop tools, sophisticated technologies farmers and other agribusinesses now use to help manage irrigation water and nutrients.

Examples of tools include soil moisture probes and meters that allow farmers to measure nutrient content in crops while they are being grown as a better way of efficiently managing nutrient inputs.

Budell's focus is on promoting the use of the latest and best tools. "For example, soil moisture probes have been around for a number of years," he said. "But they're getting more and more sophisticated and reliable. And also less expensive to operate and maintain at the same time."

A total of $4.5 million will be targeted at other areas around the state, not located in the northern Everglades and spring sheds, to promote and improve water quality and conservation cost share programs such as irrigation system evaluations and upgrades. "For example, we want to make sure that the irrigation systems being used in the ag community are as efficient as they can possibly be," Budell said.

The plan includes additional cost share funding for expansion of the FAWN weather system that allows growers to track weather conditions in real time as a further way to make irrigation as efficient as possible.

FDACS's long-term vision for water management and conservation is essential if Florida is to keep pace with Florida's increased agricultural production and water needs, Budell said.

For example, he said, production of relatively new crops such as blueberries is expanding, while new crops such as olives and Caribbean-based fruits and vegetables are being developed as the population and consumer demand based on ethnic diversity broaden.

"So those kinds of trends and cropping patterns will continue to have a [changing] impact on what the likely amount of water is that is going to be needed for agriculture in five or 10 or 20 years," Budell said. "So it's more important than ever to work with our partners at the WMDs and University of Florida and USDA to track those trends and try to project estimates of agricultural water use and do a better job of managing the resource."