Monday, February 09, 2015

Big Sugar, the Big Squeeze, and the Everglades … by gimleteye

On Thursday, the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District will meet in Palm Beach. Civic activists, citizens, and environmentalists will urge the District governing board to put on its agenda soon, the decision to purchase the tendered lands of US Sugar.

Although there has been all good cheer from Gov. Scott on the Everglades, there has been no interest either in the Governor's budget or from the District in the single most important step they need to take now: buy more land that is in sugar production south of Lake Okeechobee.
Property ownership map of the EAA

If there is one thing you can do for the Everglades this year, it is to be part of the chorus urging the District's governing board and governor to get on with the business of buying more land in the Everglades Agricultural Area to use for water cleansing marshes.

According to environmental leaders, the only way to protect Florida's devastated estuaries -- the Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee, that empty to the east and west coast of Florida respectively -- and the Everglades, is to provide enough surface water storage area so that when it rains hard and Lake Okeechobee rises to dangerous levels, the pressure can be siphoned off and polluted waters cleaned.

Instead of cleansing pollution, it is still official state policy to make the Everglades and estuaries take all the pressure from excess rainfall. Call it: The Big Squeeze.

Big Sugar gets all the water it wants, when it wants, and as a result the entire state of Florida suffers. We suffer politically, we suffer economically, and the environment suffers.

In 2008, then Gov. Charlie Crist negotiated with the largest producer of sugar, US Sugar Corp., to buy all its land in the EAA at a cost of over $1.2 billion. Subsequently, Gov. Rick Scott criticized the deal (without first understanding it) and then drastically scaled it back when he was elected in 2010. The option to purchase some 46,000 acres south of the lake expires this October. US Sugar suddenly has cold feet. I'll get to that later.

Everglades activists and concerned citizens will gather at the District in West Palm Beach this week on Feb 12 for the SFWMD Board meeting to urge them to agenda a discussion of the issue and support exercising the option.

If you can't be there, take a few minutes to email each Board member and the governor to tell them how important it is to agenda this item. More details can be found at Email the members of the Water Management District at:

Daniel Okeefe
Kevin Powers
Rick Barber
Sandy Batchelor
Mitch Hutchcraft
James J. Moran
Juan M. Portuondo
Timothy Sargent
Glenn J. Waldman

What follows is a long explanation and commentary. Everglades leader Maggy Hurchalla writes:

CERP (The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan) cannot work as currently planned.

It can't save the Everglades, protect Miami's drinking water, and save the coastal estuaries as currently planned.

We've found one part for storing water for south of the Lake won't work. The deep well/ water storage component (aquifer storage and recovery wells, or, ASR), at best, can function for 70 of the 200 proposed wells. For those 70 wells, there is no long-term data to show that ASR wells will continue to function as designed for fifty years or more. Short term pilot projects cannot supply that long term data. Even if some of the ASR wells function they will be more expensive than a reservoir south of the Lake.

The EAA (Everglades Agricultural Area) reservoirs for storage south of the Lake, were originally sited in the wrong place. The land purchased for those reservoirs has been turned into stormwater treatment areas so the state can meet court ordered water quality standards. There are currently no plans in place for that siting required storage.

Without acquiring land south of the Lake, there is no place to store water for sugar cane users except IN the Lake. As long as it is stored in the Lake, it can't be sent south and it will be dumped on the estuaries when it's not needed. "Studying all alternatives" won't solve the problem. There are no alternatives to storing water south of the Lake that will make CERP work.

All of CERP is at risk for failure to deliver previously modeled benefits without ASR and EAA storage.

The TOP PRIORITY for all state and federal agencies needs to be a replacement strategy for ASR and designation of an EAA storage site which can;

- send more water south in sync with the seasonal needs of Everglades National Park.
- reduce damaging discharges to the northern estuaries.

We now have an option to buy 46,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee from US Sugar. That option runs out in October. It is possible to buy the land to provide the 360,000 acre feet of storage in the EAA that CERP modeling says is necessary.

If we do not exercise that option now, the alternatives are:

- a negotiation where the seller holds all the cards and doesn't have to sell, or
- condemnation proceedings which will take years and will probably doeble the price.

That purchase has to be the state and federal partners TOP PRIORITY. It can remain in sugar until final design is complete. Parts of it can be sold back or traded for other lands if they is not needed.

We know ASR won't work. We know that no progress has been made in siting the needed storage reservoirs south of the Lake. We know CERP won't work without that storage. WE risk wasting billions on a Plan that won't work by putting other priorities ahead of buying land south of the Lake in 2015.

We've been told that other storage projects should be completed before we even consider land acquisition for EAA storage.The C44 reservoir will only reduce damaging discharges to the St. Lucie by 8%. It provides a water supply benefit to Lake Okeechobee users but it can't send water south. The same is true of C43.

If we commit $5 billion of taxpayers money to save the everglades, and the spending:
- won't provide necessary water to Everglades National Park
- won't protect the Biscayne Aquifer and keep dry season fires from increasing in the Everglades west of Miami, and
- won't prevent the ecological collapse of the coastal estuaries

Then our season of leadership will be remembered for squandering taxpayer dollars AND killing South Florida's environment and it's economy.
Let me add some comments to Maggy's:

What the public wants is a way to prevent the dumping of polluted water from destroying the estuaries and valuable real estate on both coasts, and, assurance that our drinking water will protected. What environmentalists want is for clean water to rehydrate the Everglades, that have been decimated by state water management practices favoring the sugar industry. What does the sugar industry want?

If the governing board gets involved, it will send a clear signal to the sugar industry: now it is time to start the process of conceiving, funding and constructing a lasting plan to fix the pollution of Florida's estuaries including the Caloosahatchee and the Indian River Lagoon. In concept, this plan would use a significant amount of sugar lands -- more than 130,000 acres in total -- as cleansing marshes to retain water, in a system that polishes the pollution from the water, then releases in a more natural flow to the Everglades.

The 46,000 of US Sugar lands is not just an ante, to get in the game for the 130,000 needed. It is vital to send the message to Big Sugar that we have spent twenty years building a Rube Goldberg work-around and now it is time to get down to what was known half a century ago: put water through the center of the Everglades Agricultural Area to serve the interests of the Everglades below.

If the water management district ignores the opportunity to buy a significant piece of US Sugar lands, putting up one excuse or another, it will send another signal to the sugar industry: the political status quo, through your unlimited campaign donations, will be maintained and we will preserve your ability to dictate terms to the Everglades and whoever cares for them, in perpetuity.

It is not clear to me that US Sugar ever intended to sell its land, despite the considerable energy spent by Gov. Crist, the Everglades Foundation -- representing some of the key environmental groups in the state. Negotiating in bad faith is in the eye of the beholder, but it is also in the DNA of Big Sugar. Consider that US Sugar was the main funder for the removal of a county commissioner in Lee County who was the biggest supporter of the land acquisition: Ray Judah. If US Sugar wanted the deal to go through, why would it have invested in silencing Commissioner Judah in 2012?

It is hard to reach any other conclusion from the decades and decades of litigation between Big Sugar and government, between government and environmental groups, between environmental groups and Big Sugar, than that Everglades -- some remnant 3 million acres south of Lake Okeechobee and south of nearly 700,000 acres of lands in sugar production -- is a big zit that periodically gets squeezed as the pressure of pollution builds from underneath and around.

Why would US Sugar make a deal that it never intended to keep? The sugar industry has shown itself facile at dodging accountability for its pollution, promoting subsidies, and deploying an enormous artillery of lawyers, engineers, and public relations consultants whose only goal is to achieve the purpose of the industry: maximum profitability, minimum regulation.

Moreover, the 2008 US Sugar deal pushed Marco Rubio to the US Senate in 2010. Big Sugar money poured in Rubio's coffers after Crist announced the deal. It was as though he made himself a big fat target for the very interests he thought he was helping. The original price for the US Sugar lands was more than $1.2 billion. The problem with the deal from US Sugar's perspective: it's one thing to construct an option to buy, it is another thing for the state to come up with the money.

Until Amendment 1 -- the environmental lands purchase ballot initiative that passed with 78% of the popular vote in last November's election -- there was no guaranteed source of funding that was not, overtly, a tax on the people of South Florida.

US Sugar and its chief competitor, Florida Crystals owned by the billionaire Fanjuls of Coral Gables and Palm Beach, have always resorted to that fall back position: there is no money to buy our lands, even if we were willing sellers.

But now that 78 percent of the people have spoken, there is in fact money and that money could be used to solve the massive pollution the industry causes, because the industry will not clean up the pollution itself. For its part, the industry cries that all the pollution is not theirs: it comes from the cities, it comes from the air, it comes from everywhere but its farming practices which -- it adds -- no longer treat the Everglades like an open sewer.

The "show me the money" defense by Big Sugar is usually accompanied by a concerted lobbying effort by Sugar in Tallahassee and Washington, DC to throttle efforts to raise money from the public treasury.

And, by the way, when public lands ARE purchased by the government from sugar for environmental purposes, industry lawyers cleverly leave loopholes and attach strings that are more like iron chains on future disposition and use of the property. In the Everglades and the history of land purchases for environmental restoration, even when it wins, the government can't win. That is the pressure of one of the wealthiest, most subsidized agricultural crops in the United States, and not even the American Enterprise Institue or any other conservative foundation has been able to dislodge it.

Looked at from this perspective, Big Sugar and the fate of the Everglades is like a cat toying with a mouse.

There is some curiosity to the fact that the sugar industry did not actively invest in the defeat of Amendment 1. The wording of the amendment is such that considerable energy by the Great Destroyers is now being directed at the state legislature, where they are already taking numbers at the counter to scoop the delicious goods created by the constitutional amendment. (Amendment 1 revenue is tied to a percentage of the documentary tax stamp deployed for real estate transactions statewide.)

So that could be the play: Big Sugar and its allies in the water management business could be using the environmental groups to secure funding which they will later channel to their own interests in flood control and other neat technologies, like aquifer storage and recovery (ASR).

ASR is very much on the minds of Big Sugar. With ASR, Big Sugar gets to keep the Big Squeeze on taxpayers, going indefinitely.

When it drove the 2000 Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, and even earlier in the Governors Commission for a Sustainable South Florida, the sugar industry promoted the idea that hundreds of very deep wells could be used to "inject" fresh water during rainy season to prevent the overflowing of Lake Okeechobee and the destruction of the estuaries and to insure the sugar fields would be dry and that there would be enough water for both sugar and the cities and the Everglades in the dry season. ASR was, in fact, strenuously opposed by Sierra Club and some other Florida environmental groups, but the pie-in-the-sky technology nevertheless was the reason that Big Sugar signed off on the speculative plan in the first place.

Well, twenty years later, it appears that at the very same time environmentalists and civic activists are driving popular enthusiasm toward the district governing board to buy sugar fields, the federal partner in the effort -- that would be, the US Army Corps of Engineers -- is reviving plans for ASR; in other words, dragging Florida back to the past that failed.

No one can afford another two decades of delay. Let's get clean water moving south to the Everglades, now.


Alexandria said...

ASR does not work. Unless you just want to add arsenic to the already massive poisons in our water. For gods sake we are only looking at phosphorous and nitrogen when mercury and a host of other toxic soup is out there. The SFWMD, DEP, & counties need to stop issuing permits and zoning development period. The environmentalists need to stop compromising and say the magic words HELL NO. The crisis is here the drinking water is a mess. Climate change is just the cherry on top of the disaster pie. Builders are locusts they destroy and move up the road they do not care about hurricanes,floods or anything else. FPL, Georgia Pacific, Disney, have all flushed their toilets for years into our water and the environmentalists took donations just like the paid off politicians. The sellout needs to stop. Nimby's the 15 minute environmentalists standing by and saying send it somewhere else is a crime. Maggie has tried, Marjorie tried, Rosa tried but big money and uninformed decisions and statements over the years have won out. We need 700.000 acres not 130.000 let Pepe and the gang go back to Cuba. Pepe did not pay 9000.00 per acre and they have made billions poisoning our air (burning the cane) and dumping their runoff into the canals. The US can Make the fine so big that they give the land back in lieu of being bankrupted. Time to play hardball and save our children and grandchildren lives. Time to save Florida before its to late.

ShowMe, MO said...

The first priority for Amendment 1 money should be to buy every square inch of land which has runoff into the Everglades. We have and will spend billions to clean it up. Stop it at the source. Whether it is sugar cane or any other use buy it and repurpose it but stop the source of Everglades pollution.

cyndi lenz said...

Thank you so much. We need to get this done. Its imperative not just for the folks in the Treasure coast and the westies, but for the Everglades, Florida Bay and Miami.