March 1, 2017
Glades leaders: Don't ask us to lose jobs to fix Lake Okeechobee discharges
By Isadora Rangel and Taylor Treadway
Towns south of Lake Okeechobee don’t cause discharges into coastal areas, but are being asked to carry the burden to fix the issue, community leaders told Treasure Coast Newspapers on Friday.
A bill to buy rural land for a reservoir is unfair to residents in the area known as the Glades, who rely on agriculture for jobs, they said. They are skeptical of lawmakers’ plans to mitigate the loss of jobs and said other parts of the state should do their share to reduce pollution that flows into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
“Everyone who’s a player in this needs to take an equal hit,” said former Pahokee Mayor J.P. Sasser.
Sasser and Belle Glade Bishop Kenny Berry sat down with Treasure Coast Newspapers for a Facebook live interview to make their case against the land buy. This was their rebuttal to a February interview with Florida Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who’s pushing a bill this year for the state to borrow $1.2 billion for the purchase and construction of a reservoir to hold excess lake water that today gets discharged.
Here are the takeaways from the interview with Sasser and Berry:
Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay have struggled to attract other industries besides sugar and agriculture. Taking 60,000 acres out of production for the reservoir, as Negron suggested last year, would affect all local businesses that rely on dollars generated by agriculture, such as the Belle Glade auto body shop Sasser manages.
The Sugar Growers Cooperative of Florida has said it would have to close its Belle Glade mill, which employs 560 full-time workers and an additional 300 contractors, according to Sasser.
"The jobs out there right now are supporting our community," said Berry, founder of Grace Fellowship Center. "Don't take those away."
NO TRUST IN LAWMAKERS
Bill sponsor Rep. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge, has suggested one way to mitigate job losses would be to give priority to locals for jobs in the construction of the reservoir. The Everglades Foundation, one of the groups pushing for the land buy, commissioned a study that found 16,000 direct construction jobs would be generated plus 23,000 indirect ones.
Berry and Sasser aren’t buying it.
“The jobs that we are talking about losing are existing jobs,” Sasser said. “This other stuff is pie in the sky.”
They said the state promised to train sugar workers to learn other skills when Clewiston-based U.S. Sugar Corp. agreed to sell all its holdings to the state in 2008. That promise never came true, Sasser said. Neither did most of the deal and the state only bought a small portion of the company’s land.
LOOK NORTH FIRST
Berry and Sasser pointed out that more than 90 percent of the water flowing into Lake Okeechobee — water that could eventually be discharged to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers — comes from the Kissimmee River basin north of the lake.
"The problem is up north. Everything is flowing from up north, so let's focus up north," Berry said.
"Why is Central Florida's problem our problem?" Sasser asked. "If the bathtub is overflowing, wouldn't you turn off the faucet?"
Plans developed by the state and federal governments call for reservoirs north, south, east and west of Lake O. Projects east and west are underway, and a northern reservoir is next on the list. Negron's plan would move up construction of the southern reservoir.
The argument for expediting the northern reservoir is that it would store and clean water before it reaches, and pollutes, the lake.
But a northern reservoir would have limited effect on curtailing discharges. Once it filled up, excess water would have to be sent to Lake O; and once the lake fills up, the water could be sent to the estuaries, scientists say.
LOOK SOUTH LAST
Sasser said projects north, east and west of the lake — as well as curbing flows from the local watershed into the St. Lucie and switching septic tanks to sewer systems — should be completed before starting the southern reservoir.
The argument is that once those projects are up and running, water managers can determine how large the southern reservoir needs to be to handle whatever excess water remains. The advantage: Less land may needed, meaning less expense to the state, less land taken out of farming and fewer jobs lost in the Glades region.
The problem: It would seriously delay construction of the southern water storage, which Sasser agreed "is the key to the whole thing."
CAN WE COMPROMISE?
"We're not that far apart from what we want," Sasser said. "It's on how we're going to get there where the difference is."
People in the Glades communities "want the discharges to stop; we want the Everglades to be rehabilitated," he added.
To reach a compromise, Sasser said, both sides have to focus on solving the problem rather than assigning blame.
But Berry added, "Why do we have to compromise? We're not the problem."