October 23, 2016
State's option to buy sugar land expires in 2020
Send water south.
Few phrases stir up as much controversy in South Florida, and it's been flying off the tongues of east and west coast residents and business owners for years.
The idea is simple: create an expanded drainage system south of Lake Okeechobee in order to send lake waters where they flowed for thousands of years – to what is now Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.
The execution, however, has been slow, and the state says it's not planning to start planning for water storage south of the lake until 2020
The subject heated up again in August, when State Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, proposed $2.4 billion to buy farm lands south of Lake Okeechobee and turn some of the land into water storage reservoirs for Everglades restoration. His proposal, which he would bring to the 2017 Legislature, has met resistance from the sugar industry, which is opposed to giving up additional, productive land, saying it could shutter refineries and lead to job loss.
Building a reservoir south of Okeechobee has been discussed for 20 years or more, since the state and federal government agreed to reverse damage done to the Everglades and River of Grass over the past century or so.
Today Okeechobee levels are lowered primarily by sending water down the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, which were artificially connected to the lake in order to drain the Everglades for farming and development.
Instead of forcing freshwater to the coasts, the system would keep some water on the landscape longer, which naturally improves water quality while also replenishing drinking water aquifers.
"We’ve replumbed those two rivers to be disposal conduits and we need to move the water back where it historically flowed and is needed, which is south," said Jennifer Hecker with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
But the "send water south" train is barely on the tracks, and a former South Florida Water Management District governing board member and current sugar executive says the land buy is unlikely.
"We pretty much know it’s dead in the water," said Malcolm "Bubba" Wade, of U.S. Sugar in Clewiston. "When you look at the priorities and the $5.5 billion for reservoirs (and other Everglades restoration projects), nobody’s even thinking about buying 154,000 acres of land with no plan to do anything with it. The chances are close to zero."
Wade resigned from the water management district governing board in 2008, when then-Gov. Charlie Crist announced a plan to buy U.S. Sugar lands and all its assets.
Today the agency is moving in the opposite direction, saying other projects must first be funded and completed.
"The current timeline of planning is a proven and reliable compass that guides restoration projects and maximizes the benefits of all Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan efforts," Randy Smith, South Florida Water Management District spokesman, wrote in an email. "A proposed amendment to this schedule is a distraction that could prove harmful to ongoing efforts and should be carefully considered only in the context of a public process."
At the time, the state purchased some farm lands but did not have the money to buy out all of U.S. Sugar, as was the original plan. The original deal was $1.8 billion for 194,000 acres of U.S. Sugar lands and assets.
Instead, the state spent $197 million for 28,000 acres.
The state has an option to buy the company in 2020, but the deal would require the state to buy all the assets up front.
Wade said the cost would be well over $1 billion.
Caroline McLaughlin, with the National Parks Conservation Association, told the water district board in August that moving water south has the support of the Corps of Engineers and leaders in the Legislature already: "The missing piece is the support from the district and leadership of Gov. Scott. We again ask the district join the Corps to initiate planning for storage, treatment and conveyance of water in (farm lands south of the lake) and to holistically look at storage options both north and south of the lake."
More than 1 million acre-feet, or 325 billion gallons of storage, is needed north, south, east and west of the lake to make the Everglades restoration a success.
The Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency in charge of Everglades restoration, said earlier this year it is willing to consider buying land south of the lake for Everglades restoration projects.
"A study (of agriculture lands) will investigate opportunities to create water storage (in) areas south of the lake," reads a July letter from Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army. "The Army is prepared to initiate this study quickly, once a non-Federal sponsor for the study is identified."
That non-federal sponsor would have to be the South Florida Water Management District, which has reversed course on the idea over the past decade.
Hecker and other groups support Negron and his proposal to purchase the sugar land.
"All the analysis that has been done, even with buying the bundled assets at fair market value, it is by far the cheapest and most effective solution," she said. "We don’t want to wait to see if there’s anything better."
Local fishing guide Daniel Andrews said the state should buy the land and focus on recreating the historic flows of the Everglades.
"From the big picture, no matter what we do there’s no way to stop the water coming down the Caloosahatchee River from the lake and satisfy the minimum flows to the Everglades," Andrews said. "There’s no other way to do it than to send water south."
Hecker said the decision to not buy the land is based on politics, not facts.
"The science hasn’t changed," Hecker said. "The administration has changed."
Proponents of buying farmland to convert to water storage and flow are concerned that if the land isn’t purchased soon, it will be developed, rather than preserved, in the future.
But Wade said buying the land and sugar’s assets is a waste of taxpayer money.
“I think you’re looking in the rear-view mirror and moving on,” Wade said. “Purchasing that land doesn’t solve anything.”
Connect with this reporter: Chad Gillis on Facebook.
SAVE OUR WATER
What: The News-Press Media Group is hosting an educational and engaging summit focusing on the water quality crisis in Southwest Florida. Experts from around the region and state will speak on a variety of topics, a moderated panel representing agriculture, tourism, business, U.S. Sugar and real estate will discuss the economic impacts, and we will unveil five unique water-themed experiences so the learning can continue beyond the summit.
When: Wednesday, noon-6 p.m.
Where: Sanibel Harbour Marriott Resort & Spa
Tickets: Sold out
Live coverage: You can follow live coverage on news-press.com
Twitter: Join the conversation using #saveourwater
More coverage: newspr.es/saveourwater
The News-Press is publishing a series of water-issue stories leading up to the Market Watch: Save Our Water event on Wednesday.
THURSDAY: Volume and quality: The two main problems for the Caloosahatchee River and its estuaries are massive amounts of freshwater and the amount of nutrients such as nitrogen in that water.
FRIDAY: Water shortage? Even though we get nearly 5 feet of rain each year, our water table is dropping. Here’s why.
SATURDAY: Business impact: Keeping the river clean is good for business, say business folks along the river and beaches.
TODAY: Many people want the state to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee to help solve water woes, but the truth is land is needed in every direction.
COMING MONDAY: Trouble blooms: Algae occurs naturally, but the frequency and duration of events is often tied to human activities.
TUESDAY: Lake link: The connection to Lake Okeechobee will not be severed soon because the watershed no longer naturally stores the water that would have normally been available during dry times.
WEDNESDAY: Taxpayers have paid billions over the years on a water system that is still a financial drain.