Our friends at VoteWater took a deeper look at the unfair breakdown in cost of STA maintenance, even as Big Sugar reaps most of the benefits.

Read their latest Deep Dive below:

In our last “Deep Dive,” we noted how the stormwater treatment areas (STAs) — 62,000-acres of man-made wetlands south of Lake Okeechobee designed to clean water headed to the Everglades — could be used to help mitigate harmful Lake O discharges to the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River estuaries.

Instead, the STAs — built with $1.2 billion of taxpayer money — are used almost exclusively to clean water coming off the farmland (mostly sugarcane fields) of the Everglades Agricultural Area to keep it from polluting the Everglades.

That taxpayers pay to clean up Big Sugar’s dirty water is bad enough. Worse is that every drop of water that flows off the sugarcane fields into the STAs is a drop of water that stays in Lake O — or, when the lake gets too high, gets discharged to the estuaries.

And we all know the damage that pollution-laden, often-toxic lake water wreaks on the fragile estuaries and the people around them.

But in addition to paying to build the STAs, Florida taxpayers pay to operate and maintain them too, splitting the cost with EAA farmers, who remit an “agricultural privilege tax” to fund their share.

The split is supposed to be around 50-50. But data from the South Florida Water Management District shows that in 2023 the tax on the land under cultivation in the EAA raised about $10.5 million — about 30% of the nearly $34.9 million the district spent that year to operate and maintain the STAs.

This, even though about 97.5% of the water in the STAs last year was runoff from the EAA. Paying 30% of the cost and getting 97.5% of the benefits is a pretty sweet deal for Big Sugar.

And three years from now, that deal gets even sweeter.

The agricultural privilege tax was set up to decrease over time. The current $25-per- acre rate runs through 2026, meaning Big Sugar’s share of paying to operate and maintain the STAs begins dropping in 2027.

In the coming years, the tax rate and the amount it raises will be:

  • $20 per acre from 2027 through 2029, raising $8.8 million
  • $15 per acre from 2030 through 2035, raising $6.6 million
  • $10 an acre in 2036 and afterward, raising $4.4 million

So even if the cost of STA operation and maintenance were to remain at $34.9 million annually, by 2036 the agricultural privilege tax would cover just 12.6% of that cost.

But anyone who’s watched inflation boost costs in recent years knows operation and maintenance costs won’t remain at current levels. And data over the past 10 years from the SFWMD bears this out.

Between fiscal year 2014 and FY 2023, operation and maintenance costs for

the STAs rose from slightly more than $19.4 million to $34.9 million. That’s an increase of about 80%, or an average increase of about 8% per year.

If that average rate of increase continues, the cost of operating and maintaining the STAs could rise to nearly $94.8 million in FY 2036, when the privilege tax rate bottoms out at $10 per acre.

If that happens, come 2036 EAA farmers will be paying just 4.6% of the cost of operating and maintaining the STAs.

The rest? That’ll be YOUR responsibility.

Taxpayers on the whole built this inequitable system; soon enough taxpayers on the whole will be responsible for almost the entire cost of maintaining the system.

So perhaps capacity in the STAs should be allocated on the basis of who pays for it – meaning that by 2036, 95.4% of STA capacity should be reserved for Lake O water,

Or perhaps the Florida Legislature should intervene to keep the agricultural privilege tax rate where it is. For as the EAA’s fiscal responsibility to maintain and operate the STAs declines, it amounts to a tax hike on every other taxpayer in the district.

You pay. Big Sugar gets the benefits.

And that’s the very definition of a rigged system.