By Nancy Smith
Sending water south from Lake Okeechobee to meander naturally through the Everglades — the “flowway” endorsed by the Everglades Foundation as the only way — “will never happen, it’s pie in the sky,” admitted one of Florida’s leading voices on environmental policy.
But Eric Draper, executive director of Florida Audubon, cautioned Sunshine State News Wednesday not to think that just because Plan 6 (the flowway) isn’t where the Legislature should focus, doesn’t mean Big Sugar should be allowed to escape its obligation to help solve water problems.
Participating with about 400 other Florida residents in a “clean water” rally at the base of the Old Capitol steps in Tallahassee, Draper said, “The sugar industry should see there’s an additional need for land for reservoirs and they should agree to some of the land proposal,” he said.
The land proposal comes from U.S. Sugar Corp. — to buy a 46,800-acre parcel of its property. The Everglades Coalition, which includes more than 50 environmental groups and other advocacy organizations, claims buying that land is the only way to fix rainy-season problems created by water discharged from the lake.
According to U.S. Sugar’s offer, state officials have until October to make the purchase; after October, the state would also have to buy another 106,200-acre parcel at top dollar.
In addition, there are three significant obstacles to lawmakers choosing that option before or after the October deadline:
The state already has a plan in place to fix and pay for Everglades restoration and save the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries.
Only 26,000 acres of the 46,800-acre U.S. Sugar parcel are south of the lake. The remaining acreage wouldn’t help. And the deal doesn’t come on an a la carte menu. The state can’t buy just some property and leave the rest.
The per-acre price of U.S. Sugar property is significantly higher today than it was in 2010. Bang for the buck isn’t there.
Judy Sanchez, senior director of corporate communications and public affairs at U.S. Sugar, said Draper’s statement is a first — a public admission from a respected environmentalist who deals in realities that a flowway is a pipe dream.
“James Moran, one of the (South Florida) Water Management District’s trustees explained it at the last meeting to a group of citizens who showed up demanding the flowway,” she said.
Quoted in The Palm Beach Post, Moran said, “It’s not as simple as buying the land and moving the water south. To come in here and lecture us — just buy the land and move the water south — if it was that simple, it would have been done already.”
Sanchez said, “With only 26,000 acres south of the lake, that land isn’t going to solve anything. A few days’ worth of releases in 2013 would have gobbled that up. It’s a drop in the bucket for what’s needed. So, I’m saying, if it’s not going to solve your problem, you’re wasting your money.”
She said Everglades restoration is working. The state already has 100,000 acres south of the lake — a repurposed A-1 reservoir and an A-2 reservoir on the drawing board. And on top of that, it’s all right next to established stormwater treatment areas.
“The way you fix the Everglades and the estuary problems is, fix the mess from Orlando south to the lake,” said Sanchez. “That’s the real source of the pollution going into the canals and into the rivers, and that’s what the governor understands and what he’s trying to do.”
The U.S. Sugar Corp. land buy is looking more and more like a sinking option. The governor is unlikely to give it his blessing — in 2010, while he was running for office, he signed a taxpayers-protest petition advocating against it. (See video reminder.) But the Water Management District trustees at the time bottomed out the district’s bank account buying a small parcel anyway. They paid $197 million for 26,800 acres. Some of that land was never put to restoration use.
And House Speaker Steve Crisafulli revealed his feelings in an email to the Post Wednesday: “At this time, I do not support spending limited state resources to purchase more land south of the lake. My priority is to utilize and care for the land we own now.”
At the SFWMD trustees’ Feb. 12 meeting, Jeff Kivett, chief engineer for the district, outlined other obstacles to moving water south, with or without the U.S. Sugar land:
Pumps, canals and other structures that water leaving the lake must pass through are not capable of moving large volumes of water from the lake to the Everglades.
The Endangered Species Act and other federal environmental regulations limit how much water can be moved south to protect migratory birds and prevent nests from being inundated.
Strict water regulation schedules set maximum limits on water depth in conservation areas. The East Coast Protective Levee, which protects western neighborhoods in Palm Beach and Martin counties from flooding from the Everglades, could be compromised by higher water levels.
An agreement in a federal lawsuit prohibits the district from moving water with high levels of phosphorous south. Doing so would put the district in violation of the agreement.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith