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On the Everglades Part V: If there is consensus on what needs doing, why isn’t it happening?

April 1, 2017

I must admit to a bias in writing this post. Back in 2004, when I was being recruited to come to Florida Gulf Coast University as an Associate Professor, I was told money to support research was already in hand and waiting only for me to write pro forma proposals and get started. One of the two “guaranteed” sources of money (the other one, I’ll discuss in another blog post some day) was US Sugar. I was told by the then-director of the brand new Biotechnology Program at FGCU that US Sugar was very interested in bacterial diseases, and if I could propose anything involving bacterial diseases of sugarcane or oranges, they would fund it. Studying the important bacterial diseases of orange trees would have required sophisticated containment facilities that FGCU wasn’t going to build, so I put together a proposal about a bacterial pathogen of sugarcane and was ready to discuss it with the management at US Sugar upon my arrival in Fort Myers in January 2015.

 

When I informed the director, he said he would set up a meeting. I waited. And waited. So when was the meeting? Eventually, he said, “why don’t you get started on the other work.” Well, eventually, I learned the management of US Sugar were dishonest scumbags who had no intention of giving us a nickel, said whatever looked pretty at the time, and couldn’t care less who their obfuscation and outright lies hurt.

 

Imagine my surprise when I found that US Sugar and the rest of the sugar industry, in dealing with the state of Florida, have been dishonest scumbags who have said whatever looked pretty at the time and couldn’t care less who their obfuscation and outright lies hurt. A bit of confirmation bias here, but I will try to lay out the facts for you, dear readers, nonetheless.

 

This is part V of my series on environmental issues involving the Everglades. The first four posts were pure science, no politics, and concluded with the notion that every problem I discussed could be solved by getting water to move along the path it took historically, pre-development, through land that is now owned by the sugar industry. If you didn’t read my earlier posts, start here:

 

Yes, there are problems unrelated to moving water through sugar industry land, and I promise I’ll do a post on those eventually. But as politics is essential to understanding these issues, even in a blog where I generally stay away from politics (friend my personal page on Facebook—not the author page linked to this blog/website—if you want to hear my opinions on politics that aren’t directly connected to science, environmentalism, futurism, science fiction, or writing), I must delve in. The swamp in South Florida can’t be understood without touching on the swamps in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

 

The origin of the Everglades environmental problems was the late 19th century movement of population into central and south Florida, which led to draining of swamps to make room for settlement. With the demise of these swamps, wet season water was no longer stored to the same extent, leading to dry season droughts. These droughts, combined with a terrible hurricane in 1928 when the levees breached and killed large numbers of people living south of Lake Okeechobee (the same hurricane described in Zora Neal Hurston’s, Their Eyes Were Watching God, a great novel, and the only one to be added to the must-read high school canon in the US since I was in high school) and back-to-back severe hurricanes in 1947 built a demand for flood protection and water storage. Starting in the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers set up levees, canals and water conservation areas, blocking flow of floodwater into urban areas and storing water for dry season use.

 

These changes resulted in a decline in numerous plant and animal species and the death of seagrass beds in Florida Bay, but it wasn’t until the publication by Marjory Stoneham Douglas in 1947 of The Everglades: River of Grass that the broader public was made aware. The decline in flow of water south from Lake Okeechobee, across Tamiami Trail, and into Everglades National Park from a height of 450 billion gallons per year to a still-current level of 260 billion gallons had led to a ninety percent decline in wading bird populations and nutrient pollution-triggered influx of invasive plants, both of which Douglas documented in her book. 

 

But what could be done? By this point, much of the farmland had been urbanized. Today, more than three million people live west of I-95 on what used to be sawgrass. Yes, many of these people are the mega-rich living in West Palm Beach, but this number also includes economically disadvantaged communities living south of Lake Okeechobee and the barrios of Hialeah. Moving these people would be hard, so attention shifted to the Everglades Agricultural Area, and in particular, lands owned by Big Sugar.

 

But the shift was slow. The first major victory in the fight to save the Everglades was a court case. Phosphorous runoff, mostly from fertilizers used to grow sugarcane, had reached 150 ppb from a pre-development level of 10 ppb. In this phosphorous-limited ecosystem, overgrowth of invasive species resulted. In 1988, the US government sued the state of Florida for violations of the federal Clean Water Act. Governor Lawton Chiles stopped fighting the lawsuit in 1991 and spearheaded passage of the Everglades Forever Act in 1994, which committed the state to meeting Clean Water Act standards. Storm water treatment areas were allocated in the Everglades Agricultural Area, and sugar companies committed to limiting use of phosphorous in fertilizers. Today, the level is 30 ppb. 

 

Also during this time period, the Florida legislature passed the Florida Forever Act, providing $300 million per year for land purchase and conservation from 1991 to 2008. In its day, this program was the largest land protection program in the US. Under Florida’s current governor, Rick Scott, and with a Republican supermajority in the legislature, funding fell by 2016 to $15 million per year.

 

However, these efforts paled in comparison to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which after many years of effort, was signed into law in December 2000 by Governor Jeb Bush and President Bill Clinton as a joint state/federal project. Over thirty years, $10.5 billion dollars was allocated. The four most important components were as follows: (1) Restoration of natural sheet flow of water through Water Conservation Area #3. This region runs between Big Cypress National Preserve to the west and the urbanized Atlantic coast to the east, bordered on the south by Tamiami Trail, with Everglades National Park to the South of the Trail. The work will involve removing levees and filling canals, allowing water to flow as it would naturally; (2) Everglades National Park seepage management. The greater Miami megalopolis is protected by keeping water levels low in canals to prevent flooding. As a result, water seeps from Everglades National Park into the canals. This part of the project will build barriers to prevent seepage; (3) Biscayne Bay coastal wetlands restoration. Water will be directed east from Everglades National Park through wetlands that empty into Biscayne Bay (south of Miami), restoring them; and (4) Filling the southern part of the C-111 canal and replacing it with an east-west spreader canal. The C-111 canal takes floodwater from all of Miami-Dade county and routes it directly south into Florida Bay (which stretches south from mainland Florida, is bordered on its south by the Florida Keys, and is contiguous on its west with the Gulf of Mexico), starving the southern parts of Biscayne Bay coastal wetlands of needed water. Instead, the new canal would move the water east, spreading it throughout the region, where it will empty into Biscayne Bay.

 

To get to any of these areas, water must flow south, and that means through the Everglades Agricultural Area. In 2003, Big Sugar attempted to derail these efforts by bribing Jeb Bush to go to Washington and fight to eliminate the pollution regulations that were also part of CERP. His attempt to gut his own legislation was so extreme that federal legislators refused to play ball. Instead, he spent the next decade successfully delaying implementation of the full Clean Water Act standards. Thanks to him, the levels of phosphorous are at 30 ppb in the Everglades rather than the original goal of 10 ppb. And a cycle of mutual blame ensued, with promised federal funding and much state funding for CERP not materializing.

 

Governors changed. In 2008, Governor Charlie Crist, then a Republican (later to run unsuccessfully for re-election as an independent and currently considering a run for the US Senate as a Democrat), goaded the Southwest Florida Water Management District into negotiating a deal for buying all 180,000 acres owned by US Sugar. The company promised to suspend operations.

 

The solution! Water would flow. Sure, the sugar barons would be paid blood money, but it was money Floridians were willing to sacrifice to solve a critical problem.

 

Well, it hasn’t happened yet. US Sugar wanted to sell in 2008 for several reasons. First, the real estate meltdown had collapsed the economy and led to a downturn in its core businesses. Second, US Sugar’s second biggest crop, oranges, had been ravaged by a series of plant diseases spread by hurricanes and global climate change. Third, a federal judge had ruled backpumping, taking water that periodically flooded sugarcane fields and putting it back into Lake Okeechobee, contaminated with fertilizers and other agricultural chemicals, with the labor provided by the water management district, violated the Clean Water Act. As such, pressuring the water management to do this particular dirty work for Big Sugar had become harder. (But not that hard; to this day, under pressure from Big Sugar, the water management district dumps 55,000 metric tons of sulfur pollution annually from its treatment facilities into Everglades National Park. See my post number four in this series for how that has lead to mercury poisoning of fish in the Everglades. Additionally, the $1.75 billion negotiated sale price was $400 million above the appraised value of the land.

 

In 2010, the water management district bought 26,800 acres for $194 million and negotiated options on rest of land. Then the economy improved. US Sugar reneged and paid off enough lawmakers to let the option to buy the rest of the land at 2010 prices expire in 2013. The remaining option requires purchase at current fair market value.

 

In an attempt to further destroy CERP, in 2014 US Sugar teamed up with a smaller landholder, Hilliard Brothers, to seek rezoning to allow commercial development of a new city on the banks of Lake Okeechobee in what they called the Sugar Hill Sector Plan.  These 43,313 acres were a large part of the land the state still has an option to buy. Remarkably, this blatant attempt at driving up land prices so as to improve their negotiating position was so egregious that Governor Rick Scott, normally a paid-for puppet of the sugar industry, lobbied the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, convincing them to kill the plan in November 2014.

 

At this point, Florida voters were fed up. Largely due to lawmakers refusing to fund Florida Forever, which they had voted for overwhelmingly, in November 2014, the Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative (Amendment 1) passed with 75% of the vote. This referendum provided lots of money for buying land, $650 million in the first year alone. The law is expected to provide more than $700 million per year for 20 years; the funds were reallocated from revenue from existing excise taxes on documents. The public wanted CERP to move forward.

 

And it almost did. However, in April 2015, the water management district board backed out of exercising the fair market value option from the 2010 deal with US Sugar to buy 46,800 acres of land. To be fair, they made some valid points. The land had become very expensive, and with these options, only 11,000 acres would have been available in first twenty years, with 10,000 more per decade parceled out. The cost of cleanup would have fallen on the state, along with that of moving US Sugar railroad tracks, power lines and roads. Instead, the water management district backed Rick Scott’s $5 billion, 20-year proposal that doesn’t involve this land.

 

The federal government also moved forward on a partial bypass of the sugar industry. In December 2016, Congress authorized the Water Resources Development Act, freeing up $2 billion for the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP). This part of CERP would go ahead and develop land already owned by the state of Florida. The message was that water needed to flow south as soon as possible. The devil is in the details. The project will not finish, so no extra water will flow, until 2030. The project isn’t even slated to begin until 2020. And both Congress and the state of Florida called this “fast-tracking” a solution! CEPP will ultimately store, treat and send 65.2 billion gallons south through the Everglades. For comparison, in 2016, 202 billion gallons were sent east from Lake Okeechobee into the Saint Lucie estuary, and more than 500 billion gallons were sent west through the Caloosahatchee River, causing the algal blooms that prompted the recent government action. And no funds have yet been budgeted by Congress; a separate act is needed to appropriate money to the Army Corps of Engineers.

 

Yet even this amount of movement on the issue was too much for Big Sugar. In February 2017, a letter from Everglades Agricultural Area landowners (US Sugar, Florida Crystals and 12 smaller landowners) was made public, saying they are not willing sellers. They claimed the problems were caused north of Lake Okeechobee and should not be solved on land south of Lake O. The focus in the letter was on storing water north of Lake O and thus not discharging it into the estuaries. CEPP and other minor projects were also mentioned favorably. The letter was a masterpiece in obfuscation.

 

But it may not be enough to doom CERP. The algal blooms that shut down tourism led to such a public outcry that even Republican state legislators had to act. The new champion of the Everglades is Republican State Senator Joe Negron, R-Stuart, whose district had become toxic algae central. He is currently co-sponsoring Senate Bill 10 (with State Senator Rob Bradley, also a Republican), which would authorize $2.4 billion to buy 60,000 acres of farmland for reservoirs. Crucially, if this deal cannot be negotiated, it mandates activation of the option to buy the remaining 153,000 acres of US Sugar land and put US Sugar out of business forever. The bill is on the agenda of the appropriations subcommittee, with the first meeting scheduled for early April.

 

At the time the option was negotiated, US Sugar was a willing seller, so the state can legally force US Sugar to sell its land. However, the option expires in October 2020. I predict much ugly politics in the interim. The “Sugar Scumbags” have everything to lose, so they will fight hard.

 

And who are they? Well, this post has already run very long, so I promise my next post will focus on the “Sugar Scumbags.” But do share this post everywhere. I’m hoping the term I just invented for the owners and operators of the companies that comprise Big Sugar will catch on.

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