Everglades Activists Worry New Reservoir Deal Doesn't Go Far Enough

The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan — a state and federal project to restore the Glades to some semblance of its former glory — passed in 2000. That plan called for a 360,000-acre-foot reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. But in the years since, climate scientists have warned that planners underestimated the amount of water the Glades needs to replenish itself, and that the original benchmark might not be large enough.

Now, 17 years later (after one notable false start), the Florida Legislature has finally passed an Everglades reservoir bill — and Glades activists are now worried they might not even get to that original, 360,000-acre-foot benchmark.

"It's a sliding scale, the amount of storage we’re going to end up with," Dave Preston, a climate activist with the anti-sugar lobby group BullSugar.org tells New Times.

Yes, even authorizing a bill to acquire land from Big Sugar represents nothing short of a milestone in Tallahassee, which is so steeped in sugar money its taps might as well dispense pure molasses. Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law last night.

But the new law also awards some major concessions to sugar landowners, to the chagrin of groups such as Friends of the Everglades, the conservation nonprofit started by Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Conservationists might have celebrated the bill's passing last week, but most have sobered up and now view the road ahead for Glades preservation as a rocky path with ample opportunity for sugar giants such as Florida Crystals' Fanjul brothers to prevent the state from building the best reservoir it possibly can.

"SB10 passed the Senate a flawed but necessary bill that gave huge concessions to Big Sugar to get the southern reservoir built," Friends of the Everglades posted online two weeks ago, after the bill, SB 10, passed the state Senate. The measure did not change after passing through the House. (The conservation group didn't respond to a call from New Times yesterday.)
But on April 10, Friends of the Everglades released a statement outlining what the group said were gaping holes in the plan — namely, that the bill prevents the state from taking land from sugar companies using (controversial) eminent domain proceedings; that an entirely new sublaw, which would let private water-storage companies operate in Florida, is embedded within the bill; and that SB10 lets the state negotiate in secret with Big Sugar companies to buy land — and that nothing related from those negotiations would be deemed public records.

"Eminent domain — allowing the state to purchase land from unwilling sellers — is a tested, tried, and important policy option for government," Friends of the Everglades wrote. "Prohibiting eminent domain has no place in the bill. It is like asking the state to fix critical water infrastructure problems with one hand tied behind its back. So far as new water policy is concerned, using an Everglades bill to sharply change course turns the bill into a Trojan horse. If, in fact, new water law — permitting private water resources — can provide positive benefits compared to state management of water resources, this issue should be fully briefed for the citizens of Florida in its own stand-alone bill."

But Scott signed all of those provisions into law last night.

BullSugar.org's Preston has worked closely with Friends of the Everglades to push for the reservoir bill. He says many Glades activists worry about a provision that lets the Army Corps of Engineers and South Florida Water Management District study the state's ability to acquire land and effectively choose whether to create a minimum of 240,000 or 360,000 acre-feet of water-storage space. Preston says he worries that sugar interests will push hard for 240,000, and even if the state ends up creating a 360,000-acre-foot reservoir, that larger reservoir still won't be large enough.

"There are still several triggers that are going to dictate where we end up," he says. "One is if the District and the Corps end up reconfiguring the A-1 parcel," a 17,000-acre plot of state-owned land between the Miami Canal and North New River Canal.

Per the bill:
If the district and the corps determine that an alternate configuration of water storage and water quality features providing for significantly more water storage, but no less than 360,000 acre-feet of water storage, south of the lake can be implemented on a footprint that includes modification to the A-1 parcel, the district is authorized to recommend such an alternative configuration in the report. Any such recommendation must include sufficient water quality treatment capacity to meet state and federal water quality standards.
Preston also worries that, without the ability to take land via eminent domain, the state will be hamstrung in its negotiations and will either be forced to pay far too much for sugar company land or won't be able to acquire much. (The state's attempt at building a reservoir from 2006 to 2008 largely tanked because the Charlie Crist administration was accused of forking over far too much cash for Big Sugar land.)

"We did give up a lot in negotiations," he says. "Sugar is letting us build on their own land, but we gave up the option of eminent domain, which was so substantial. If we determine we need more land later — and we almost know we will — how are we going to get it without eminent domain as an option?"

In his Friday column, Miami Herald veteran Carl Hiaasen also laid out even more obstacles before the reservoir actually gets built: namely, that the state is on the hook to pay for only half of the reservoir — which means Washington, which appears to be all but aflame right now after Trump fired FBI director James Comey yesterday, still has to approve the funding for the other half.

Likewise, there's a question of how much land can actually be conserved at this point: In 1999, the state passed the $300 million Florida Forever program, which aimed to preserve land throughout the state. But funding has been stripped down to the bone in the years since. In fact, the state budgeted exactly zero dollars for the program this year.

To combat the paring away of Florida Forever funds, voters in 2014 passed constitutional Amendment 1, which directed the state to buy land outright in order to preserve it. Instead, that money has been spent on random other state projects such as cars and salaries, and now the nonprofit Earthjustice is suing the state.

"Don't celebrate," Hiaasen wrote. "Keep the heat on those sneaky bastards."

Likewise, Preston tells New Times he feels roughly the same.

"I’ll be celebrating when I’m floating down the River of Grass in an inner tube, with a piña colada in my hand," he says, "with the water going south."