Fixing Florida’s destroyed estuaries and Everglades and Florida Bay depends on voters and taxpayers re-engaging with public officials. Case in point: how and why a vast new wetland system — at least 60,000 acres — was removed from legislation, now law, signed by Gov. Rick Scott.
Before the start of the Florida legislature, Senate President Joe Negron pledged that acquiring 60,000 acres of land from Big Sugar owners was a top priority. The addition of significant additional acreage for water storage and cleansing marshes — using lands south of Lake Okeechobee now in sugarcane production — had been a science-based goal of Everglades restoration since at least 2000. And not just the Everglades.
By the end of the session, a bill emerged without the additional 60,000 acres. (For fifteen years, environmentalists had been urging the acquisition of 100,000 acres from Big Sugar.) Big Sugar encompass about 700,000 acres around the southern rim of Florida’s largest freshwater resource.
The entire plumbing system of South Florida requires water managers to ease the pressure on lake levels under conditions of severe flooding and rainfall by shunting billions of excess gallons from the middle of the state to both the east and west coasts of the peninsula. This happens primarily through the Caloosahatchee to the west coast and the St. Lucie to the east.
To protect downstream communities and the Everglades from extreme flooding, the water has to go somewhere. The hydrological problem is not necessarily where it goes, but how much and how polluted it is. The political problem is that the determinative constituency that directs water management in Florida is not the coastal taxpayer or businesses that depend on clean, fresh water. It is Big Sugar and the beneficiaries of the most heavily subsidized agricultural commodities in the United States.
For many years, Big Sugar objected to land purchases on the basis that no funding was available. In fact, Big Sugar opposed every effort to put agricultural lands into public ownership, but when lands were purchased, the negotiated terms were always extraordinarily favorable to sellers including long-term lease back provisions that acted like dead weights on the original purpose of the transaction: to restore and protect the environment and its real, quantifiable contributions to a thriving economy.
With the passage of a constitutional amendment by nearly 75% of Florida voters in 2014, the core of Big Sugar’s objection — money for land acquisition — no longer holds. Floridians — Republicans and Democrats and Independents — voted to allocate a portion of the tax collected from all real estate transactions to the acquisition of environmentally sensitive lands. The money is there: more than $10 billion over the next two decades. What is short supply is political will.
Florida’s rainfall see-saws from one extreme to the other. Water management in South Florida, on the other hand, remains constant to the purpose of maintaining perfect irrigation and drainage for the Everglades Agricultural Area. Big Sugar’s controls water management through massive political contributions and a network that reaches deeply into both the Republican and Democratic state parties and elected officials. This rigged system is economic madness and horribly short sighted unless you are one of those sugar farmers, like the Fanjuls, or a distant shareholder living on dividend checks, as is the case with the descents of Charles Stuart Mott and the US Sugar Corporation.
Beyond the political money, the next ring of the problem is hydrology. When it rains too much — with climate change, there is a rising risk that extraordinary rainfall will become routine rather than exception — polluted water from Lake Okeechobee must be drained to lessen the risk of a catastrophic breach of the lake’s berm and risk to sugar farms. When it is too dry, Everglades National Park becomes hyper saline, triggering massive seagrass die off at the bottom of the ecosystem in Florida Bay, choking with algae blooms that continue for years. The Caloosahatchee River, emptying to Florida’s west coast, also suffers under the both extremes; it fills with toxic discharges when it’s wet, and like the Everglades, it needs clean fresh water when it is too dry.
At the end of the recently concluded session of the Florida legislature, the Tampa Bay Times reported: “Months of negotiation and compromise over whether to build a deep-water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee ended in victory Tuesday for Senate President Joe Negron as the Florida House agreed to the Senate plan and sent the measure to Gov. Rick Scott for his approval. The proposal, SB 10, will cost the state and federal government $1.5 billion and will accelerate the state’s 20-year goal of storing water from the lake by using land the state owns, known as the A-2 parcel, as well as land swaps and purchases. The House passed the measure 99-19, after it reduced the amount the state could bond for the project to $800 million, and the measure was then passed by the Senate 33-0.”
The Everglades Trust, an influential environmental group, praised the new law and its key supporter: “One development made all the difference: an outstanding lawyer, a state senator representing what had been “ground zero” for the algae, was elected by his peers to the presidency of the Florida State Senate. Armed with overwhelming evidence and science and backed by tens of thousands of supporters, Senate President Joe Negron made the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir his top legislative priority. Even at great personal sacrifice — he resigned his lucrative law partnership to wage this fight — Negron showed extraordinary integrity in leadership.” (“Against long odds, Florida residents won water battle,” May 18, 2017, TC Palm)
What happened to the 60,000 acre reservoir and why did it disappear? The simple answer: Big Sugar stage craft.
Negron had forged close links with Big Sugar early in his political life. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in Big Sugar contributions flowed in and out and between political committees that Negron and the top lobbyists and business leaders in Florida directed. It costs an enormous amount of money to wage a credible political campaign in Florida. State senate races in populous sections of the state can cost each candidate millions of dollars. Negron secured loyalty with the implicit backing of Florida’s big donors, especially Big Sugar.
Negron, with Big Sugar’s support, had already been designated the incoming senate president for 2017 when historic, heavy rainfall began to fall across his southeast Florida district in late 2015.
When it started pouring during South Florida’s dry season, causing water managers to open the flood gates of hell onto waterways, GOP voters were furious. The memory of an earlier pollution disaster, the 2013 floods and toxic algae blooms, had not faded. Dead fish and wildlife, water too dangerous to touch: pollution does not select for political affiliation.
As Negron’s GOP districts were rumbling with discontent, the primary campaign bids of Big Sugar’s proxies, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, were falling to pieces. Both had proven their worth to Big Sugar in the early 2000’s, spearheading passage of a state law that broke a federal state Everglades consent agreement arising over Big Sugar’s pollution in the early 1990’s.
Rubio is Big Sugar’s strongest ally in Congress, a result of long-standing friendships with supporters like the billionaire Fanjuls. It was the Fanjuls who rescued Rubio from obscurity after he retired from the Florida legislature when Big Sugar needed — in 2010— a opponent to run against then Gov. Charlie Crist. The Fanjuls were furious that Crist had negotiated an option to purchase 187,000 acres owned by its cartel competitor, US Sugar Corporation. Ever since, Rubio had been an outspoken leader against any further addition by government of lands in sugarcane production. In the primary, he defended Big Sugar’s federal subsidy as a matter of “national security”.
During the early months of 2016, the “Now or Neverglades Movement”, initiated by the upstart Bullsugar.org, put pressure on Senator Negron in his home district. The movement called for the rapid addition of at least 60,000 acres of lands in sugarcane production, for the purpose of rainwater storage and treatment.
Negron, an inside player, was unhappy. A year before the rains began to fall, Everglades scientists — more than 200 — issued an urgent call for acquisition of lands controlled by Big Sugar to fix the endemic sickness of the Everglades and the mounting, rising costs to estuaries, bays and rivers being used as a toilet pipe to flush excess water, due to rainfall, out of Lake Okeechobee. Public opposition had manifested through serial protests at the South Florida Water Management District where counter-demonstrations, in favor of Big Sugar, were organized through Roger J. Stone, a Trump insider.
Now or Neverglades Declaration: “Today, Lake Okeechobee is treated as an impounding reservoir constantly at risk of overflow. To manage lake levels, too much untreated fresh water is discharged into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. Consequently, the lack of fresh water flow through the Everglades makes Florida Bay, the largest contiguous seagrass meadow in the world and crown jewel of Everglades National Park and the Florida Keys, too salty. The resulting salinity imbalances in all three estuaries cause seagrass die-offs, dangerous algal blooms, multi-year ecosystem collapse and economic hardship. Florida’s $9.7 billion fishing industry (129,000 jobs), $10.4 billion boating industry (83,000 jobs) and $89.1 billion tourism industry (1.1 million jobs) need healthy estuaries.”
Athough the science had been established long ago, the urgency — highlighted by regular television news and social media outbursts including the “Now Or Neverglades Movement”— was compounded by politics.
In August 2016, Negron announced his plan to make acquistion of 60,000 acres of land from Big Sugar, using Amendment 1 dollars a top priority. Big Sugar howled like a stuck pig. Florida Crystal’s information organ, Sunshine State News, called it “politicial theater” and a “waste of time”. What happened next: Big Sugar mobilized its GOP base. But Big Sugar had put in place a public relations campaign in South Florida many months earlier, nearly as soon as the rains began to fall and Bullsugar.org emerged on Facebook with tens of thousands of followers.
From August through the November, Big Sugar doubled down, taking out full-page ads in daily newspapers from Stuart to Palm Beach. It waged jobs! jobs! jobs! arguments from North Florida to Martin County to rural enclaves south of Lake Okeechobee where poor African American and Hispanic farmworkers — mostly Democratic voters — were once again trotted out to lament economic harms that could come to their employers. Septic tanks were to blame or water quality from north of Lake Okeechobee: Big Sugar’s fingers pointed everywhere except itself. The South Florida Water Management District, a taxing agency that funds the state portion of Everglades restoration, began sending out public announcements called “Get the Facts” that read like political flyers from Big Sugar itself.
The campaign in the summer of 2016 involved rattling as many cages as Big Sugar could identify; Big Sugar organized opposition from North Florida legislators and business leaders who like to complain that Democratic south Florida gets all the budget dollars, it linked for African American legislators “Black Lives Matter” to “Glades Lives Matter, it hired scientists to counter the Everglades Foundation hydrologists, it brought its attacks to a nasty, personal level, it recruited minor public officials and representatives of minority communities who claim concern for poor rural jobs and businesses that depend on sugarcane or else.
So there is no additional storage and treatment marshes in the new Everglades law. Lands already in public ownership were offered by the state legislature back to the public with funding for a deep lake under a new name, a new purpose, and under extraordinarily favorable terms to Big Sugar.
Announcing land acquisition would be one of his top priorities, Senator Negron clearly understood he might as well have waved a personal invitation to Big Sugar: I’m putting a target on my back, come get me. But his long standing ties to Big Sugar meant at a bare minimum, Negron knew Big Sugar would rally its GOP base and that, moreover, he would not have the last word on any legislative proposal once the dust from the November election cleared and state legislators went to work in Tallahassee. (Part Two, tomorrow)