More than 40 Islamorada fishing guides in 20 knot wind in the middle of tarpon season came together to spell out HELP to send water south. Photo from Little Basin behind Worldwide Sportsman in Islamorada in the midst of an algae bloom.This week, the Florida Senate takes up a bill that emerged from the Senate Appropriations Committee called SB 10, the Everglades Bill. It is a big bill that scoops up the highly contentious issue of spending billions of dollars raised through a citizens' referendum in 2014 allocating a portion of the documentary tax stamp to purchasing environmentally sensitive lands.
Senate President Joe Negron made this bill one of his top legislative priorities, after highly polluted water from Lake Okeechobee contaminated Florida's east and west coast outlets in the winter of 2015/2016. In Florida, winter is normally dry season. That year, historic rainfall laid bare the problem of Florida's water infrastructure: it is organized primarily to benefit Florida's wealthiest campaign contributors. Big Sugar.
Big Sugar farms on approximately 700,000 acres in the southern crescent below Lake Okeechobee. The crop, sugar, and its seasonal water demands have always commanded priority of attention by policy makers and legislators.
Last week Florida Keys fishing guides assembled their skiffs in Florida Bay, spelling the word for an aerial photograph: "Help!". The bay, since the 1980s, has endured repetitive algae blooms that stripped biodiversity from hundreds of square miles from pristine wilderness, leaving behind ghostly scenes reminiscent of chemical warfare. In this case, the warfare is waged far upstream; through the Everglades, which normally would feed Florida Bay fresh, clean water in the right volume and the right time of year, straight up to the big sugar farms that take fresh water and fill it with chemicals that run off the fields as a form of state-authorized pollution.
The guides are normally a cranky lot, disinclined to shooting from the hip. The promise of new legislation moving through Tallahassee that could solve the serial insults delivered to Florida Bay by polluted water and protect their livelihoods -- the foundation of a $500 million contribution to the Keys economy -- brought them together.
It is no mystery why Florida Bay is ailing. Nothing can live except scavenger species in water turned to shit by pollution.
Florida's water bosses serve elected officials channelized by the money influence wielded by Big Sugar billionaires a single aim: keep those 700,000 acres of sugar farms south of Lake Okeechobee from getting too wet when it pours or too dry when the rest of the southern half of the state is parched. Even Florida's millions of taxpayers and visitors and voters are subservient to this mission: keep the money flowing no matter the consequences.
Today there are more than 100 highly paid lobbyists representing Big Sugar trolling the halls and barrooms of the state capitol with simple marching orders: undermine and erode a critical bill, supported by the Republican president of the state senate, Joe Negron, that might stop the rampant pollution of east and west coast beaches and estuaries, a tourism-dependent economy, the Everglades and Florida Bay. The tyranny of unfairness rolls on like a massive locomotive.
This week in Tallahassee, Big Sugar is supporting a version of the Everglades bill by Senator Negron because it includes provisions that lock down its prerogatives to dominate, forever, water infrastructure necessary to its profits. For example, without any vetting in public where environmentalists might have the chance to weigh in through testimony -- Big Sugar inserted an amendment that locks down a prohibition by state government from ever "taking" land from unwilling sellers in case this next decadal tranche of water "restoration" projects fails. Eminent domain is a legal, legitimate way for government to advance important infrastructure projects. It also provides for compensating property owners. Although eminent domain is rarely used, it is a necessary and important tool to balance the benefits to taxpayers and to private property owners.
That's not the only problem in the bill. There are process issues embedded in language that could fail to deliver what the public expects with new reservoirs and storage treatment marshes necessary to prevent the same problem that created the 2015/2016 water emergency in Florida's coastal estuaries and the ongoing death by a thousand cuts in Florida Bay and the Everglades.
No Florida Bay fishing guide leaves the dock in the morning with a guarantee of catching fish. Every sugar farmer in Florida is guaranteed a profit the instant the sun rises at dawn.
That's where the inequity starts. Not where it ends.
Big Sugar isn't interested in equity. It is interested in domination. That's why its lobbyists and lawyers get paid the big bucks. In the current bill is also a provision to create new water law in Florida, a kind of Trojan Horse, through which a public resource -- rainfall -- can be converted to private profit. So, the ban against eminent domain is only one of the trap doors in the current Everglades bill by Senator Joe Negron.
Bullsugar found another one: "We are deeply concerned that at the 11th hour under intense pressure from the sugar industry, legislators shrunk the reservoir (to be created with billions of public dollars) by 34%. CERP calls for 360,000 acre feet of storage south of the lake. We've been short changing the estuaries and the Everglades for far too long - when did the science change?" Talk about swamps worth draining.
Florida invented the cliche: the environment and the economy must be balanced. Cliches are sometimes true, but that is not the case here. What is emerging in this bill is a tyranny of misdirection.
Let's end with this thought: there are many others in addition to Florida Keys fishing guides who need "help"now.
The threat or outright loss of jobs in Stuart, in Lake Worth, in Naples or Islamorada is also a "taking". These losses aren't imaginary fictions drummed up by right wing foundations funded by big polluters and billionaires. Through massive pollution in Florida's estuaries, rivers and bays (in primarily Republican districts) eminent domain has been imposed like a suffocating blanket over life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. That's not some "speculative" eminent domain. That "taking" has been happening -- "incrementally", in the words of fishing legend Steve Huff -- for half a century in Florida.
Big Sugar in Tallahassee is waving the banner of "eminent domain" like cry babies. The next president for the Florida Senate inserted that big trap door into the current senate president's prize legislation. If you want to know whose livelihoods are already being taken -- by Big Sugar's rampant polluting practices -- just look at those Florida Keys fishermen.
"Help!" is an easier, shorter way to spell, "Florida Bay and the economic life of South Florida has already been "taken" by Big Sugar" without any compensation at all.
Citizen warriors fought to protect the Everglades in the 1940's, when the national park was created but left wetlands critical to the health of the ecosystem outside park boundaries. In decades that followed, state legislators tried various band-aids to staunch the losses and incursions by growth-at-any-cost suburbs, developers in wetlands and Big Ag. In the 1980's, Florida environmentalists launched federal litigation that ran its course straight to the present day; nearly forty years of chasing shifting baselines and regulatory capture by the immensely wealthy sugar industry propped up by impermeable privileges embedded in the federal Farm Bill.
Big Sugar is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a week in this legislative session to keep that perspective from entering Tallahassee city limits. The solution, right now, is for the public to demand that Senate Bill 10 and whatever version emerges in the House stick to the original intent of Senator Negron: take out the poison pills, the trap doors, and the Trojan Horses. Stick up for hard working Floridians and natural resources that have been the lifeblood of the state economy.