Buying land to save water? It’s complicated

Should Florida buy land to save water?

That simple question is shaping up to be a complicated and politically tangled debate this legislative session as the state’s powerful sugar industry ramps up against the widening reach of water-weary local communities in an age of climate change and sea level rise.

On one side is Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who has made the issue a top priority when lawmakers meet in regular session beginning March 7. After a summer of watching toxic algae blooms poison local waterways, Negron decided that nearly 20 years is long enough to complete the state plan to build a water-cleansing reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to bring more clean water to South Florida and reduce the polluted discharges from the lake that spoiled the estuaries in his district on the east coast, and the Caloosahatchee River estuary on the west coast.


“All I’m doing is saying let’s accelerate what we already know we need to do because you can’t continue to destroy oyster beds, destroy the sea grasses we spent millions of dollars planting, and have communities where there are literally signs saying ‘Due to outbreak of poisonous bacteria, you can’t swim in the water,’ ” Negron told the Herald/Times.

Negron has identified the funds — bonding $60 million of Land Acquisition Trust Fund money approved by voters in 2014 — and is amassing Senate support for budgeting $800 million for land and construction costs. The Senate is drafting a bill and will be conducting a wide-ranging hearing Wenesday on Negron’s priority issue.

The proposal would fast-track a project originally proposed in 2000 under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a 35-year, $10.5 billion program to clean up and restore what is left of the Everglades. Florida’s vast ecosystem is the state’s principal source of fresh water and has been altered, and shrunk, by decades of highly engineered projects that divert water for agriculture and urban use.

READ MORE: Carl Hiaasen’s column on the summer of green slime

House leaders, however, are sending mixed signals about the Negron plan.

Some are questioning the need for the massive land buy to guarantee clean, fresh water to South Florida. Others question the wisdom of increasing the state debt to finance the project, while others are showing a willingness to challenge the powerful sugar industry, which opposes building a reservoir in the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area.

“It’s a new day, and we will look at the issue from scratch,” said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Commerce Committee, which will help shape the House’s response to Negron’s priority.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, asks whether simply buying land “is the best approach,” and while the House opposition might provide leverage in the tug and pull over legislative priorities, he admits, “everything’s a negotiation.”

If the Senate gives the House what it wants, such as “full-blown pension reform and [education] vouchers, then 50,000 acres in the Everglades is a no-brainer,” he said. “But we’ll see where we end up.”

United in opposition to the plan is Florida’s once-divided sugar industry, and its allies on the South Florida Water Management District, the governor-appointed panel charged with regulating water from Orlando to Miami.

For the last year, water management district officials have argued aggressively against buying land south of the lake and instead attempted to shift the focus to replacing septic systems north of the lake with sewers, reducing polluted run-off into the lake. They echo the sugar industry’s argument that the state should stick to a schedule laid out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to wait until 2021 to build the reservoir, even though the Corps said in July it was willing to accelerate the planning schedule.

It’s a dramatic change of heart since 2008, when U.S. Sugar announced it would sell 180,000 to the South Florida Water Management District “as a monumental opportunity to save the Everglades” by using the land “for storage and treatment of water in the EAA, and improve the flows to the Everglades” and reduce discharges into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, according to the company’s 2008 press release.

The announcement drew fierce opposition from the other sugar powerhouse, Florida Crystals, and U.S. Sugar has since backed off much of the deal. The companies now argue that the state has enough land to store water and there are cheaper methods to restoring the Everglades than building a reservoir that destroys productive farmland.

They want the state to focus on deepening existing storage treatment areas, building storage reservoirs on land the state already owns, and completing existing restoration projects.

“A reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee does absolutely nothing to stop the lake releases,” said Ernie Barnett, the former assistant executive director of the South Florida Water Management district who headed up the current restoration plan and is now a consultant to the sugar industry. He believes the state has better options for its “finite resources.”

Negron, however, is willing to remain flexible on which parcels of land to buy and is not prepared to exercise the state’s eminent domain powers to condemn land for purchase.

“If we are going to explore purchasing agricultural land, we should look for land that is not in maximum agriculture production,” he said. “All land is not the same south of Lake Okeechobee, some land is very productive and other land is less productive.”

One proposal being considered is for the state to set up a structure for a bid process to find willing sellers.

“Until money is available, you are not having a real-life discussion for buying your property,” Negron said. But, he added, “I believe there is a way to have additional water storage south of the lake that does not adversely affect our agricultural industry.”

Recent studies and increasing volumes of rain have also changed the equation since Barnett and his colleagues developed CERP.

“A scientific consensus has developed that the Everglades ecosystem contained much more water historically than previously thought,” a report released last month by the National Academies of Sciences concluded. The findings call for more water storage and an update of the projects. But, the report noted, only 18 percent of the total restoration projects planned by CERP have been funded.

On the other side of the debate are environmentalists and local officials from the counties on the east and west coasts, whose property values were damaged this summer when toxic algae blooms exploded in estuaries and waterways after the release of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee.

Conservationists, politicians and scientists are meeting this weekend in Fort Myers for the annual Everglades Coalition conference, to focus support on the land-buying plan, under the theme “Three Estuaries, One Solution.”

The group’s goal is to mobilize constituents in key legislative districts to put pressure on lawmakers to support the Negron plan as an integral part of establishing a sustainable source of clean water, said Nick Iarossi, lobbyist for the Everglades Foundation.

However, many in the sugar industry consider the land-buying pitch the first step in a long-range plan by the Everglades Foundation, and its political arm, the Everglades Trust, to stifle agriculture in the Everglades.

Negron, who grew up in West Palm Beach and recalls childhood visits to Pahokee, Clewiston and South Bay, isn’t buying it.

“I have enormous respect for the agriculture community and their history and importance in Florida,” he told the Herald/Times. “I think that we all have a responsibility to address this particular situation, just like I want to make sure there is never flooding of a community south of Lake Okeechobee.”

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who is heading the Senate Appropriations subcommittee developing the bill, said he admits that finding a “willing seller” for the land “could be a challenge.”

Bradley also supports the governor’s proposal to turn septic systems into sewer systems and the water management district’s call for storage north of the lake.

“It’s a multi-faceted approach, but the goal is clear. We have a situation that’s completely unacceptable,” he said. “Too many of our citizens are having to deal with intolerable situations regarding our water. The algae blooms and guacamole waterways were an embarrassment for our state, and we should address it.”