|Florida's most profitable industry, Big Sugar, and its closed loop system|
Lake Okeechobee is the diseased, liquid heart of Florida. For more than seventy years and until very recently, the lake was used by Big Sugar -- that farms on hundreds of thousands of acres around the lake, mostly around its southern half -- as its cesspit.
In wet season, Big Sugar used to routinely pump water off its fields back into the Lake. That runoff was laden with fertilizer and other chemicals, like sulfate, used to increase crop yields. In dry season, Big Sugar would pump water back onto its fields, nourishing the most heavily subsidized agricultural crop in America.
Lake Okeechobee is part of a closed loop system that serves Big Agriculture, including dairy farms to the north. This closed loop system has worked extraordinarily well, thanks to the integration of industry profits in the operation of water management infrastructure. Those profits benefit some of the wealthiest farmers in the United States. The closed loop system requires constant attention; from water managers who work for state and federal agencies to the legislative and executive branches of government in Tallahassee who regulate both the flow of water and the quality of water.
The system's many moving parts also include an army of lobbyists who serve the biggest corporations involved in sugarcane production: the Flo-Sun/ Florida Crystals empire owned by the Fanjul family, U.S. Sugar Corporation owned by the descendants of Charles Stuart Mott through a charitable trust, and other smaller, but important players like the King Ranch, the largest land-owner in Texas.
There are some variables in the closed loop system that require the intervention of legislators and lobbyists. Environmental rules and regulations are one. The other: rainfall. Broadly speaking, environmental rules and regulations affect the region because the Everglades and water quality, downstream of Lake Okeechobee, are protected by law. So are the waters of Florida that serve the state's number one industry: tourism and real estate.
Although businesses that involve tourism and real estate are attentive to water quality, as an historical matter it has never been its top priority. As long as the sun shines and the weather is warm in winter and taxes are low, the state's biggest profit centers are complacent. For Big Sugar, on the other hand, environmental regulations are critical. Florida's natural environment is uniquely susceptible to injury from the chemicals in fertilizer. Its needs are also upside down from the seasonal requirements to put water on and to dry down sugarcane.
In other words, the closed loop system that serves both Florida politics and sugar industry profits has been superimposed over a natural system and that the entire arrangement mostly works unless one looks too closely -- through the lens of science -- and unless it rains too much.
A year ago, too much rain fell in South Florida at the wrong time of year. In December and January, nearly two feet of rain fell causing lake levels to soar.
Water managers, fearing an historically wet winter would be followed by a wet hurricane season, opened the lake's floodgates to lower water levels as a matter of caution and in consideration of a possible catastrophic failure of the lake's berm. Sugarcane fields stayed mostly dry as downstream real estate and tourism-related businesses on both Florida coasts were pummeled by a massive, months-long flood of terribly polluted water.
The problem with the Lake Okeechobee closed loop system, long known to scientists, fishermen, and environmentalists, is that it doesn't include enough water storage and treatment marshes which could accommodate excess rainfall. Scientists are in agreement: for the closed loop system to work, and not destroy downstream Everglades or nearby estuaries and rivers, about 100,000 additional acres of land is required to create shallow, highly engineered marshes to cleanse pollution that is primarily attributable to Big Sugar's farming practices.
That land must be purchased from Big Sugar by the State of Florida. There is the problem. Through its copious campaign contributions and through its careful organization of the political hierarchy in the state capitol, Big Sugar calls the shots. Because the state capitol is far from the population centers of South Florida impacted by Lake Okeechobee, and because Lake Okeechobee itself is geographically sequestered in the middle of the state, there is little occasion for the political order that serves Big Sugar to be troubled by urban and suburban populations.
Until it rains too much. What happened in the winter of 2015 and 2016 was that the district of the incoming senate president Joe Negron was puked on by Lake Okeechobee.
Negron didn't get to be selected as senate president, by his GOP peers, by standing up to Big Sugar. In fact, he has been -- like so many legislative leaders before him -- an enforcer within the Republican majority; who knows how political stars line up according to Big Sugar's influence.
Negron also pays attention to science. As the rains fell, more than 200 scientists signed a letter to Florida Gov. Rick Scott, urging the speedy acquisition of lands from Big Sugar to solve the problem of massive pollution from Lake Okeechobee. Communities and activists on both Florida coasts organized to support the scientists, passing the Now or Neverglades Declaration through social media sites and related groups.
Senator Negron has affirmed that land acquisition in the Everglades Agricultural Area is his top priority. It makes perfect sense that a legislative leader who has supported the closed loop system that delivers profits to Big Sugar would be the best advocate for fixing its costly deficiencies. All that is missing is political will of Negron's colleagues -- especially Democrats in the Senate and state representatives in the House.
Florida's future depends, now, on how skillfully Senator Negron can navigate a budget process where Big Sugar stands in the shadows, using all its financial resources to steer the outcome. According to press reports, there are 64 lobbyists in Tallahassee today organized to block Senator Negron's yet-to-be-released bill.
The question government always faces: who does democracy serve? If the question isn't constantly asked, the institutional exercise of democracy turns into an elaborate pageant or Kabuki drama where every role and plot-point has been honed through generations of actors. Each takes the stage to replace who came before. In time, with each successive performance, they become skilled, then aged by term limits, then fade from view to yield to a younger generation, trained by lobbyists. The retired stars are richly rewarded, with good seats in the skyboxes.
Florida's government is a closed loop system, and it will take all the skill Senate president Joe Negron can muster to protect the state from the destiny of all closed loop systems that fail to adapt to changing circumstances.
Opposition to Joe Negron's Lake Okeechobee land buy shapes up and it's strong
Isadora Rangel, Treasure Coast Palm
email@example.com Published 5:42 p.m. ET Jan. 13, 2017 | Updated 6:17 p.m. ET Jan. 13, 2017
When Senate President Joe Negron announced his plan to reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges last year, he acknowledged his upcoming challenge: to convince the Legislature to fund it.
That challenge began taking shape Wednesday as the Senate had its first meeting to discuss how to curb discharges.
The state agency that would execute Negron's plan, the South Florida Water Management District, refutes the basic premise of his proposal: the need to buy land to build a reservoir south of the lake. The district also has argued with the main group backing Negron's proposal, the Everglades Foundation, over the benefits of storing water south of the lake.
Sugar farmers, who own most of the land, have unleashed an army of lobbyists and a campaign to kill the plan.
And the House has sent a message about cutting spending just as Negron wants the state to borrow $1.2 billion. The federal government would put up the same amount.
Can state build reservoir on public land to move Lake O water south? | Map
All these obstacles paint a bleak picture, but a premature one, said Sen. Rob Bradley, the Clay County Republican who leads the committee that's drafting a bill for the plan. The Legislature will hear the bill during its March-to-May session.
"We’re in January," Bradley said. "All the dialogue and posturing you see right now, wind back the clock to 2016, 2015 and 2014 and you have the same posturing, the same statements being made very early in the process."
TIGHTENING THE BELT
State Sen. Joe Negron conducts a public meeting regardingBuy Photo
State Sen. Joe Negron conducts a public meeting regarding the toxic Lake Okeechobee discharges, at the Flagler Center in Stuart on Aug. 9, 2016. (Photo: HOBIE HILER/ SPECIAL TO TREASURE COAST NEWSPAPERS)
House Budget chairman Carlos Trujillo said in a Tuesday meeting his chamber must "limit that appetite for spending" because the state faces a budget shortfall in the next three years. He's not a fan of borrowing money as Negron has asked.
Negron might be able to horse trade by giving the House some of its priorities, such as health care and education reform, but "we have a long way to go," Trujillo said.
"I think the House is going to be very hawkish on spending," said Trujillo, R-Miami. "Any allocations of any money would have to come from other parts of the budget."
Sugar industry outspent supporters of Lake Okeechobee plan 20-1 in 2016 elections
Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg said curbing Lake O discharges, which caused algae blooms in the St. Lucie River this summer, should trump the need to cut spending.
"When you have a leaky roof and the crisis in your community shows that the roof is leaking ... you've got to fix the roof," Eikenberg said.
ON THE FENCE
Many of the lawmakers the USA TODAY Network contacted said they haven't decided whether to support Negron because there's not a bill with details yet. Some legislators from areas north of Lake Okeechobee might think a massive land buy in South Florida will divert money from water projects in their districts, said Fort Myers Rep. Matthew Caldwell.
Caldwell, a Republican who represents an area impacted by discharges, said he hasn't made up his mind, but poked holes in Negron's proposal. Caldwell pointed out roughly one third of land once used for farming south of the lake now is used for projects to clean and store water bound for the Everglades. He also said the state and federal government should stick to the current restoration schedule. That schedule plans storage north of the lake before south and the state isn't willing to change it even though the Army Corps of Engineers said it's willing to do so.
"I don’t know that we need to buy any more land to build the (reservoir) and we don’t know how big that’s going to be," Caldwell said.
Editorial: New year holds promise for our waterways
Eikenberg with the Everglades Foundation and environmentalists cite the sugar industry as their main adversary.
There are 64 lobbyists registered to lobby on behalf of U.S. Sugar Corp., Florida Crystals and groups that advocate for sugar growers, Florida lobbyist registration records show. Compare that to the 12 registered lobbyists the Everglades Foundation has to lobby for buying the land.
Florida Sugarcane Farmers Inc., a group affiliated with sugar giants Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar, distributed a fact sheet before Wednesday's Senate meeting that said the state should consider a reservoir north of the lake. The fact sheet also questioned the need for a reservoir south of the lake, even though it was called for in an Everglades restoration plan Congress passed in 2000.
Caldwell said farmers feel environmentalists want the industry to go out of business despite the jobs it creates.
"The so-called 'solution' of buying land punishes the thousands of hardworking farmers that make up South Florida's agricultural industry," according to a Florida Sugarcane Farmers statement.
Carl Hiaasen: Big Sugar's slime flows north to Florida's Capitol
By Carl Hiaasen, Miami Herald
Tuesday, January 17, 2017 2:48pm
Nightmare algae blooms, vile and job-killing, are destined to be one of Scott's legacies. Next June, when the St. Lucie estuary again turns puke-green and the oyster beds die, the light-footed governor will be nowhere in the vicinity.
Neither will the tourists.
The blooms are caused by billions of gallons of fresh water that are pumped from Lake O during the rainy season. Loaded with phosphorus and other pollutants from surrounding areas, the lake discharges are mainlined toward both Florida coasts, bringing ruin to saltwater habitats.
Senate President Joe Negron, who lives in Stuart — basically Slime Central — wants the Lake O outflows diverted, cleaned in reservoirs and sent south to the Everglades.
The plan, supported by many scientists and conservation groups, would require purchasing 60,000 acres from agriculture. Only eight years ago, U.S. Sugar embraced such a concept, calling it a "monumental opportunity to save the Everglades" and struck a deal to unload 187,000 acres.
The company infamously reneged, and it owned enough lawmakers to kill the deal. It definitely owns the governor, who'll need Big Sugar's money when he runs for the U.S. Senate in 2018.
As Senate president, Negron is one of the most powerful figures in Tallahassee. He'll need all the clout he can muster for this battle, to which he arrived late and as part of the problem.
Negron has displayed little resistance as his party's leaders have subverted Amendment 1, which 75 percent of voters approved in 2014 for the purchase conservation lands. And he was all-in last year when the Legislature and governor neutered water-quality laws to allow agricultural corporations to monitor their own pollution on the honor system.
Negron now needs Amendment 1 funds to buy farm acreage for conversion to reservoirs. He's under heavy hometown pressure from Treasure Coast residents, who are getting clobbered financially by the algae outbreaks.
Meanwhile Big Sugar has mounted a PR campaign framing Negron's land-purchase plan as an attack on farming and the communities near Lake Okeechobee. This is industry-scripted melodrama; not all cane acreage is highly productive.
Opposition to Negron's plan also comes from the South Florida Water Management District, which at one time relied on actual experts on water management. Real scientists, if you can imagine such a thing! Those were the days.
Since taking office, Scott has loaded the boards of all Florida's water districts with lawyers, developers, Realtors, agricultural and industry advocates. Funding has been cut, and experienced staff members canned.
For instance, the previous executive director of the South Florida water district had worked in that field for two decades. He was replaced by lobbyist/lawyer Pete Antonacci, who'd formerly worked as Scott's special counsel in Tallahassee.
It is Antonacci now leading the district's fight against Negron's cleanup plan. Last week he told a Senate committee that buying more land to hold Lake Okeechobee's overflows would only slow down current restoration projects.
He also said state and federal authorities should focus cleanup efforts north of Lake Okeechobee, such as replacing residential septic tanks with sewers.
That is, almost word-for-word, Big Sugar's position — yet it's coming from the chief of a state agency that's supposed to act in the interests of all Floridians.
Eight million people are affected by the decisions of the South Florida Water Management District, but Rick Scott has turned it into a naked political lobby for the sugar barons, who are already rich from government crop subsidies.
Big Sugar is one of the biggest donors to the governor's PAC, so it's no shock to see him sell out. He's been doing it since Day One.
Ironically, Negron, too, has benefited from the calculated generosity of the sugar industry, which over the years has showered him and his political action committees with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Unlike the governor, though, Negron owes his seat to constituents in one geographic district. Unlike the governor, Negron can't hop on his jet and vanish when there's a manmade environmental catastrophe in his backyard.
He's got to come home and face the folks whose lives are upended by it.
And those folks don't want a repeat of last year's nightmare. They want all that lake water pumped south through the glades, not to the coasts.
Which leaves Negron uncustomarily at odds with Scott and Big Sugar. How hard he fights will show what he's made of, and where his true loyalty lies.
The green that runs through Tallahassee is a different shade than algae, but it's just as slimy to the touch.
© 2017 Miami Herald