The dispute between U.S. Sugar and certain environmental groups is heating up again as an option-to-purchase deadline draws near. Set to expire in October of this year, the contract-bound option for the state of Florida to purchase 46,000 acres of land from the United States Sugar Corporation is being pushed by the enviro-groups, and pushed hard.
The land, situated in Hendry County, consists of plots in various sizes and shapes. The largest parcel weighs in at an impressive 26,000 acres directly south of Lake Okeechobee.
The many claims of the environmental groups, like the Everglades Foundation and the Everglades Trust, attempt to make the massive land purchase sound like a viable alternative to releasing large amounts of water to the coasts during heavy rainfall periods. However, those claims are riddled with inconsistencies, omissions, and sometimes blatant deceptions.
If the option is actioned upon by the state, environmental activist groups contend the land could be converted into reservoirs, and by using these reservoirs, water could be moved south into the Everglades. Those environmental groups conveniently omit that the further development of the land into the proposed reservoirs would cost the taxpayers millions more in additional development costs.
Additionally, environmental groups have made little or no mention of the fact that such developed reservoirs may not even have the capacity to hold the estimated needs to avoid further water discharge into coastal estuaries. Judy Sanchez, senior director of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs for U.S. Sugar, brought this into sharp focus when describing relatively small amount of water that could be stored even in parcel of 26,000 acres: 104,000 acre-feet of water. In 2013, 4.5 million acre-feet of freshwater was discharged into coastal estuaries, making the claimed capacities of the proposed reservoirs “a drop in the bucket” by Sanchez’s estimation.
In information released by the South Florida Water Management District, Federal regulations would limit the amount of water permitted to enter the Water Conservation Areas, Stormwater Treatment Areas, and Everglades National Park directly south of Lake Okeechobee.
Also Federally regulated and protected are the nesting birds living in the Stormwater Treatment Areas and the Everglades National Park. Too much water in these areas would potentially destroy the nest of those birds, a clear violation of Federal law. Though well-aware of this potential environmental slaughter, the Everglades Trust and the Everglades foundation have been remarkably quiet on this possible ramification.
Beyond the detrimental effects on the area’s wildlife, there would be repercussions to the livelihood of area residents. Karson Turner, Chairman of the Hendry County Board of County Commissioners, said “It would take 30,000 acres out of production instantaneously and it would have a detrimental effect on our bottom line. We’re already the state’s leading, perennial winner in unemployment.”
County Commissioner Janet Taylor voiced similar anxiety for her own constituents who rely on the U.S. Sugar Corporation for their income. “What is going to happen to us when they arbitrarily want to buy up land to store water? Who is more important? The people or the water?” Taylor said. “And I know that water is essential to our living, but what about our jobs?” She continued, “Sugar has been a great corporate community sponsor, bringing jobs, providing resources for our parks, our pools. Everything we’ve got we can pretty much go back and say U.S. Sugar had a hand in it.”
The push by the environmental groups for swift action on the purchase option is deceptively inconsistent given the significant number of environmental projects already in process in Florida. In a recent article in the Sun-Sentinel, Fl State Representative Katie Edwards said, “Just two years ago this Legislature authorized and began the funding for an $880 million suite of projects that are designed to complete the water quality component of Everglades restoration. With the current footprint of artificial marshes coupled with on-farm best management practices, we have removed more than 90 percent of the nutrients. This final investment is designed to meet the state’s ultimate water quality goal.” Edwards wrote, “To date there are $5.7 billion of authorized and started state and federal projects with $3 billion already invested and $2.7 billion remaining to be funded. This doesn’t include the critical projects authorized by Congress in 2014.”
This sentiment is echoed by Sanchez “Exercising the option does not solve the problem. … Buying additional land would only take a huge amount of money away from approved projects.”
Could it be that these environmental groups have ulterior motives? Sanchez seems to believe so – “The Everglades Foundation is using very real and very serious water issues to further their political agenda against the Florida Sugar Industry.”
Despite the arguably self-serving efforts of environmental groups to push for states purchase of U.S. Sugar’s land, Florida legislators seem disinclined to rush into another costly land expenditure. Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli , stated a more deferential course in an interview with CBS Miami. He said, “If we truly want to honor our beautiful state, then we should spend these early years making sure we can maintain the 5.3 million acres of conservation land we already own.”
While professing noble goals, these environmental groups seem to be misleading the taxpayers about the potential Everglades land purchase. This deception could cost Florida taxpayers millions while failing to provide any real solution to the rainwater management issues facing Florida. With so many other projects committed to this goal, the push for purchase efforts of these environmental groups is, to all appearances, no more than a scheme to push yet another cost on the taxpayers of Florida, costing much more than just revenues.