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Florida lawmakers sour on Big Sugar land deal to aid Everglades

Florida lawmakers are poised to use hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked to help the Everglades for other projects

NEAR MIAMI — To a visitor's untrained eye, Florida's Everglades might seem in good shape.

"They see all this water, they see all this grass, and to them it looks healthy," said Betty Osceola, who has long taught tourists about the Kahayatle, the Miccosukee tribe's name for the Everglades.

"I always tell people that Florida is the next California," she added. "California has a situation where they don’t have water. Florida has a situation, they have water, but eventually you’re not going to be able to drink [it] because it’s too polluted."

Betty Osceola aboard an airboat in the Everglades.
America Tonight

For generations, the Miccosukee lived on tree islands they call hammocks, hunting and fishing in and around waters they know as well as anyone.

"You’re seeing a decline in the turtles and … native fish because the chemical in the water is affecting the food they eat, so it’s a trickle-down effect," Osceola said. "The Everglades is being used as a vast sewer system."

There is a way the Everglades might be able to reverse years of neglect — a conservation project so big it was once compared to creating Yellowstone National Park.

But that deal — and more of the Everglades — could die if the Florida Legislature doesn’t act this summer. Last month President Barack Obama visited the Everglades, highlighting the effects of climate change on the endangered area and the risks to the drinking water for millions of Floridians.

“If we don’t act, there may not be an Everglades as we know it,” he said.

Water woes

Getting a close-up view of a vividly colored purple gallinule is a rare thrill for a visitor. But for Ray Judah, the coordinator for the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition, the sight of this beautiful bird is more proof of troubled waters.

A purple gallinule.
America Tonight

"There’s a lot of cattails growing in and amongst the sawgrass," he said, sitting on an airboat. "The phosphorous and nitrogen allows the cattails to flourish. The birds can’t move around because the cattails are so dense."

What's more, the water level this time of year should be 18 inches higher, Judah said.

The heart of Florida's agricultural industry, the land around Lake Okeechobee, is just 80 miles north of the Everglades. And farming interests control the flow of the lake. In the dry season, water is kept in the lake as a reserve for sugar cane growers and others. When there’s too much rain, Lake Okeechobee is flushed into estuaries east and west.

‘Valuable, environmentally sensitive lands are under threat from development. If the state doesn’t acquire them now, they’ll be lost forever.’

Will Abberger

Florida’s Water and Land Legacy

But not enough water is allowed to follow its natural route south into the Everglades.

"A lot of that primarily has to do with the way the South Florida Water Management District manages about 700,000 acres north of here," Judah said. "They manage the water levels for optimum growing conditions for the sugar cane."

A U.S. Sugar processing plant in Florida.
America Tonight

Sugar cane is a $500 million a year business for Florida. It’s also a major polluter of the state’s waterways. Its phosphorous-contaminated runoff causes massive algae blooms.

In 2008, then-Gov. Charlie Crist cut what looked like a sweet deal to rescue the Everglades. The state would buy land south of Lake Okeechobee from the United States Sugar Corp., one of Florida's two sugar makers. The land was to be used to catch and clean the waters before sending the flow south to the Everglades.

The economic crisis struck soon after, dragging Florida into a deeper recession than almost anywhere else in the country. The state’s interest in and funds for buying the land simply dried up.

A doomed deal?

U.S. Sugar and its executives have already made more than $500,000 in campaign contributions to Florida candidates for their 2016 races, according to The Tampa Bay Times.
America Tonight

Then in 2010, a land deal that cost taxpayers nearly $200 million bought nearly 42 square miles from U.S. Sugar, allowing the South Florida Water Management District to move ahead with restoration efforts — and gave the state the option to buy up to 240 more square miles of land from the company.

That option expires in October. And now that Florida's economy is surging again, U.S. Sugar no longer wants to sell the land. 

But last year, the people of Florida spoke loudly. Amendment 1, an initiative on last November's ballot, earmarked more than $750 million a year for 20 years from an existing real estate tax for the state to buy and conserve land for critical environmental projects. It was the largest environmental ballot initiative in U.S. history.

It passed overwhelmingly, with 75 percent of Floridians voting in favor. The law guaranteed more than enough money to buy the U.S. Sugar land — about $350 million.

"Florida is growing and developing again now," said Will Abberger, who heads Florida's Water and Land Legacy, the group that spearheaded the campaign for Amendment 1. "Valuable, environmentally sensitive lands are under threat from development. If the state doesn’t acquire them now, they’ll be lost forever."

But lawmakers still haven't approved the U.S. Sugar land funds. And with days left in Florida's legislative session, the deal looks doomed.

So far, the Republican-dominated legislature in Tallahassee has declined to vote on the sugar land purchase and has proposed more than $200 million of Amendment 1 funds toward the operating and regulatory expenses of state agencies. The ballot initiative said Amendment 1 money could not be “commingled with the general revenue fund of the state.”

Florida state House Speaker Steve Crisafulli.
America Tonight

"The ballot language and actually the text of the amendment specifically says to acquire lands in the Everglades agricultural area, which is where the U.S. Sugar land in question is," said Abberger. "Instead, they’re funding a lot of existing programs, existing agency operations.

Gov. Rick Scott and other key Republican lawmakers declined repeated requests for interviews, but “America Tonight” tracked down House Speaker Steve Crisafulli to ask about plans for the Amendment 1 money.

"I think we need to be focused right now on the land management side of things," he told us. That means no sugar land deal.

“America Tonight” asked him if using the funds to pay for state agencies’ operating and regulatory expenses was an appropriate use of Amendment 1 money. "I think it goes toward the overall objectives of those agencies, yeah," he said.

Should the state's option to buy the land expire, the price would almost surely go up. The sugar industry usually gets what it wants from Florida lawmakers, thanks to generous campaign contributions, critics charge. U.S. Sugar and its executives have already made more than $500,000 in campaign contributions to state candidates for their 2016 races, The Tampa Bay Times reported.

If the deal doesn't go through, Osceola fears it will be another step toward the death of the Everglades.

"It would be sadness for the Everglades because that’s another nail in her coffin," she said. "You hear the birds in the background. You hear the frogs. You even hear the trees over there — they’re rustling. They’re talking. They’re whispering. They all deserve a right to exist. They’re in distress, and those of us that have the ability to do something about it need to wake up and start doing something about it."

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