Miami-Dade County Commissioners Refuse to Support Plan to Restore the Everglades

For nearly 20 years, Florida has planned to buy back land from Big Sugar companies south of Lake Okeechobee to help restore clean water flow to the Everglades. The plan is nearly universally backed by scientists and climate experts, who blame sugar companies for pumping pollutants into the state water supply, ruining Lake O, and occasionally turning the coasts into green sludge.

But Big Sugar has lots of cash to blow on lobbyists to fight those plans. That fact was on clear display at last week's Miami-Dade County Commission meeting, where commissioners angrily shot down a simple resolution that would have supported the state land buy.

"I'm very disappointed that my colleagues did not join with me," says Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who wrote the pro-Everglades restoration resolution. "I expect to, and hope to, bring the matter back to their consideration at a later date."

The ordeal suggests just how difficult it is to fight Big Sugar's deep ties to Tallahassee.

The land-buying plan in question has been debated since at least the 1990s. The Everglades has been on life support ever since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers set about directing water from Lake Okeechobee away from South Florida and the Glades and out to the ocean. This let Big Sugar companies farm the land, but it also destroyed the area's natural water flow; the land buyback plan was designed to return the water to some semblance of historic normalcy.

Big Sugar once supported the law, but more recently its lobbying arm has worked to block it. (In 2013, NPR asked bluntly, "Whatever happened to the deal to save the Everglades?") In 2014, more than 60 percent of Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment setting aside extra money for the state to buy Big Sugar land — but even that wasn't enough to persuade legislators to do much about anything.

In August, Senate President Joe Negron, a Republican, announced plans to potentially buy two plots of land — including one area that straddles the Miami Canal. The plan is backed by groups such as the Everglades Foundation, the Sierra Club, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas's Friends of the Everglades.

So it seemed fairly noncontroversial when Miami-Dade Commissioner Levine Cava drafted a resolution to support Negron's plan. A similar resolution passed unanimously last year.

But as a vote neared at last week's meeting, the county commission received a letter from the South Florida Water Management District's president, Pete Antonacci. In his letter, Antonacci said the land buy was no longer a priority for the state and would conflict with the lake's Integrated Delivery Schedule, a plan designed to speed up Everglades restoration. Antonacci also met directly with members of the county commission to push that message.

"It is well recognized that more storage is needed system-wide; however, the myopic focus on land acquisition south of Lake Okeechobee does little to contribute to restoration success," Antonacci wrote. (The Water Management District also fought the buyback program in 2015.)

"Everglades restoration, and specifically moving the water south, is critical to the survival of South Florida."

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Environmentalists who read the letter were aghast: Since when was the land acquisition plan seen as a detriment to Glades conservation?

In response, the chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation, Eric Elkenberg, sent a response letter to the commission, debunking most of Antonacci's claims. Most notably, Elkenberg said the lake's Integrated Delivery Schedule could be easily amended to accommodate for the land buy and water redirection.

"Commissioners and residents of Miami-Dade County should not be lured into a false sense of security by the South Florida Water Management District," Elkenberg wrote. "Since February, the state of Florida has been under a state of emergency due to toxic water in Lake Okeechobee being dumped east and west. The economic and environmental damage and threat to human health have caused Floridians from all walks of life to come together demanding action."

To Levine Cava, backing the land buy is a no-brainer for South Florida residents.

"Everglades restoration, and specifically moving the water south, is critical to the survival of South Florida," she says. "One-third of all Floridians use or draw the freshwater from the Everglades, and we need that freshwater to recharge our aquifer, and need it to push back on saltwater intrusion and protect our well fields."

She adds that the "agriculture industry is not going away" and that she supports common-sense measures to help any farmers who might be affected by the buyback plan.

When Levine Cava's measure was read last week, environmentalists showed up to back it: Representatives from the Sierra Club, among other organizations, stood up to lobby the commission. "This provides an opportunity for Miami-Dade to have safe, clean drinking water," the Sierra Club's Jonathan Ullman said from a podium. "I hope that you vote for this resolution."

But opponents showed up as well. Joe Kyles — the mayor of South Bay, Florida, a community that relies heavily on the sugar industry — claimed Levine Cava's measure would kill jobs in his small town.  "If we decide to flow the water down south, there's individuals who will not have their livelihood," he said from the lectern.

From the dais, Levine Cava admitted she was battling a huge industry.

"We've already voted on it twice at the county commission in support of this item. And the only reason why it's facing increased opposition today is because we're getting closer to actually making it a reality," she said. "We've heard from hundreds of people in support of this item all over the state, not only in Miami-Dade, including around the lake."

She then stressed, "This is not going to displace anyone in the future."

But many of her fellow commission members launched a full-on attack on the bill. Commissioners Audrey Edmonson and Rebeca Sosa both warned, erroneously, that supporting Negron's measure could lead to job loss in the middle of the state.

Then Jose "Pepe" Diaz offered the most impassioned (and nonsensical) argument against Everglades conservation, ending his speech by virtually screaming at Levine Cava. After reading directly from the Water Management District's letter, he stressed he was "not a hydrologist, not a scientist, not anything," before flatly dismissing the restoration plan as bunk. (He also incorrectly referred to the Everglades as the "Veil of Grass.")

"I could list a list of projects, and so could my colleagues, that they've tried to do fast and try to deal with, and guess what? They had to revamp and take those projects out, because they didn't do the performance that they thought they were [sic]," he said. He then implied that a saner plan might be to remove the dykes that prevent Miami from flooding and let "nature take its course."

His voice then rose to a near shout: After stressing he was the "opposite of Big Sugar," he said the buyback plan was not backed by real science and would instead be something that "hurts so many people." Levine Cava then deferred the measure indefinitely.

And just like that, a simple Everglades restoration measure — which affected no county resources at all — died for another year.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.