Environmental groups on to D.C. to push sugar land buy
Environmental groups are sending a contingent to Washington, D.C., this week in hopes the federal government will put pressure on the state to buy agriculture lands south of Lake Okeechobee for Everglades restoration projects.
Under the Charlie Crist administration, the state was prepared to buy out all of U.S. Sugar and turn those lands into a storage and conveyance system that would take water flows from the lake and deliver them to the Everglades and Florida Bay, where the water naturally belongs.
Jennifer Hecker, with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, collected dead sea grass from local beaches, along with a container of water filled at the Centennial Park boat ramp in downtown Fort Myers.
"We’re getting a mass of sea grass where it’s all washing up on the beaches and basically the scientists believe that the color of the water is so dark, that it is tricking the sea grasses into shedding their leaves," Hecker said Wednesday morning. "They’re not certain whether this will cause it to permanently die-off but they’re monitoring the situation and the beaches of Sanibel are coated now with this grass."
Hecker and others, like John Heim of Fort Myers Beach, are meeting with week with Rep. Curt Clawson, R-Bonita Springs, and Congressman Patrick Murphy, D-Stuart, and other lawmakers in Washington.
Their message: the federal government should work with the state to make sure agriculture lands south of Okeechobee are purchased, as was originally planned, and used to restore flows in the River of Grass.
The original deal with U.S. Sugar was $1.8 billion for 107,000 acres and other assets.
"I'm headed to D.C. to speak on behalf of our community to end the lake (Okeechobee) discharges, (to convince lawmakers) to buy the land and send water south again," Heim said.
The Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers were connected to Lake Okeechobee in order to drain the Everglades for farming and development. Neither received water directly from the lake, historically.
But in modern times the rivers act as a floodplain -- a way to artificially release water and prevent flooding.
Those waters, instead of flowing south to the Everglades and Florida Bay, now flow in massive volumes to the east and west coasts.
A large bloom on the east coast caused health officials to shut down several swimming beaches there, and some in Southwest Florida fear those conditions will soon be found in the Fort Myers-Sanibel area.
Water quality scientists say the bloom started on the east side of the lake, and that's why the Stuart area has seen so much damage. Also, the distance between Okeechobee and the Atlantic Oceans is much smaller than the route from Okeechobee to the Gulf of Mexico, so the St. Lucie River estuary can more easily be flushed out by the lake flows.
"When there’s a bloom in the lake, that would be a good time to cut off the flow and not send it our way," said Rick Barlteson, a former South Florida Water Management District scientist who now works at the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation. "But this year it wasn’t possible."
Water from the lake and local watershed have flown consistently to the coast nearly all year. Stopping the flows now would cause Lake Okeechobee to rise, which could cause a breach in the dam that could flood nearby towns and farm fields.
Gov. Rick Scott and the South Florida Water Management District have said in recent years the agriculture lands are not needed, that buying the company would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.
The sugar industry bankrolls the campaigns of many of Florida's most influential politicians, and some people and groups believe the state has only backed out of the purchase because U.S. Sugar no longer wants to sell its lands and assets.
Gov. Scott received more than $1 million in political campaign contributions in the last year alone.
Former Lee County commissioner Ray Judah scouted parts of the Caloosahatchee River Wednesday, saying there are visible signs of blooms in Cape Coral canals.
Judah said talking with the federal government is great, but that the real focus should be on Tallahassee and the current crop of legislators.
"The state has jurisdiction over water quality, not the feds," he said while standing near the Centennial boat ramp. "Until we focus and pay attention to the blatant disregard of responsibility by the Legislature and the governor, this issue will never be resolved."
A recent look at political contributions shows the sugar industry steering nearly $58 million in direct and in-kind contributions to state and local political campaigns between 1994 and 2016, according to a review of state elections records by the Tallahassee bureau shared by The Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.
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