Help the Everglades, help the economy

Editorial
March 18. 2017
Sun Sentinel

Historic legislation to protect the Everglades and waterways throughout Florida continues to gain momentum in the Legislature. Not only should Tallahassee act this year, Tallahassee must act this year.

Two committees have approved Senate Bill 10, which would provide money for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. Approval in the Appropriations Committee would send the legislation to the full Senate for a vote.

Last week, CEOs of companies such as Orvis and Maverick Boats, which sell marine products, joined representatives of environmental groups in meetings with Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders to explain how environmental problems hurt their businesses, which hurts jobs.

Realtors in Martin County are telling Tallahassee they can’t sell homes when the area spends 242 days under a state of emergency — as happened last year — because discharges of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee are turning canals green and closing beaches. And as we all painfully know from the Great Recession, depressed home sales hurts jobs.

Then there’s tourism. Gov. Rick Scott is running a new ad as part of his campaign to preserve money for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency. But toxic algae blooms make it pretty hard to promote Florida. In fact, 92 percent of hoteliers around Fort Myers say they lost more than 100 room nights last year after the world saw photos of the area’s pea-soup waterways. And as the governor knows, hurting tourism hurts jobs.

Accordingly, SB 10 says such water issues “threaten the economic viability of the state.” Under the legislation, the state would spend $1.2 billion to acquire land for water storage south of the lake and $2.1 billion for similar environmental restoration projects elsewhere, such as the St. Johns River.

For South Florida, however, a major new reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area is especially important. It would store 360,000 acre-feet of water — nearly 120 billion gallons. And the ability to move so much water south would greatly reduce the need to release water into rivers flowing east and west, today’s solution when high water levels threaten the dike around Lake Okeechobee.

In addition, Florida Bay — a Florida Keys fishing paradise when healthy — needs fresh water that the reservoir would provide. Because of today’s high salt levels, sea grasses in the bay are dying, and that’s damaging fish and the fishing industry.

Strong opposition, however, continues to come from sugar cane farmers whose land the state would buy. U.S. Sugar Corp. spent roughly $6 million in the last election cycle. U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, the main producers, each donated $100,000 in January to Gov. Rick Scott’s political action committee. U.S. Sugar’s donations to the PAC now top $500,000.

SB 10, however, is the priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. His district has endured environmental and economic calamities for nearly two decades because of lake discharges. In an interview with the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board, Negron dismissed the claim that the sugar industry would suffer from the state’s land purchase. “We’re talking less than 10 percent of their land.” Though he has identified locations, Negron remains open to industry alternatives.

Big Sugar’s unlikely ally has been the South Florida Water Management District, which has mounted a strident campaign against the reservoir. The district won’t even study the idea, even though the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan of 2000 envisioned such a reservoir. In 2015, the district’s board refused to exercise an option to buy 46,800 acres from U.S. Sugar — nearly 80 percent of what Negron believes the state needs. And let’s remember Florida has these options because in 2008, U.S. Sugar wanted to sell the entire company to the state.

The legislation would go around that resistance. The water management district first would have to seek “willing sellers.” If there weren’t enough by the end of this year, the district or the governor and Florida Cabinet — as the board of the Internal Improvement Trust Fund — would have to exercise the district’s option on other U.S. Sugar land by Nov. 30, 2018. If those options didn’t work, the state would make the purchase under the new Legacy Florida land-buying program.

Negron acknowledges the bill contains “an aggressive timetable. That’s because the time for study is over. Now, it’s time for action.”

The sugar industry argues that the state should buy land north of the lake, since that’s where most of the pollution comes from. Everglades Foundation Executive Director Eric Eikenberg responds that no one wants to sell. Opponents also argue for underground storage. But there isn’t enough capacity, and neither scenario would get water south to the Everglades — the solution that would restore its natural flow and best preserve not only a great national treasure, but South Florida’s drinking water supply.

SB 10 would not take money from other Everglades restoration projects. The legislation identifies an existing source of money for the bond payments. A 2015 study by the University of Florida Institute found projects already planned or underway would reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges only by about half. The need for a southern reservoir has been clearly documented.

Which leaves the politics. We are told that House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz, will wait for the Senate legislation, which already has expanded once. That means Negron and Corcoran likely will decide the outcome at the end of the session.

Before then, there could be negotiations involving the sugar industry and the governor. Perhaps the acreage needed could get smaller if certain areas could store more water.

Negron is Senate president only through 2018. Memories of last year’s toxic algae bloom might fade, as did those in 2000, 2006 and 2013. But these environmental disasters are happening with increasing frequency and cementing an impression that hurts Florida. And that hurts jobs.

With Tallahassee finally understanding that pollution is bad for business, this is the year to make history.

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