A growing divide between environmentalists and scientists and the state’s politicians took center stage during a rowdy South Florida Water Management District meeting Thursday morning.
At issue: whether the state should purchase thousands of acres of U.S. Sugar land that’s part of a contract hammered out by former Gov. Charlie Crist and the district in 2010 and set to expire in October. The deal, which included 46,800 acres, called for the land to be used to store water before sending it south to restore the parched southern Everglades.
In November, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional measure to set aside taxes on real estate deals to buy and preserve such land. Sugar officials estimated the value of the land Thursday at about $500 million.
But despite heavy backing from environmentalists, including a petition submitted Thursday and signed by 207 scientists, the district board, lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott have so far failed to act.
In a report to the district’s governing board Thursday, operations chief Jeff Kivett explained that South Florida’s weather patterns and existing plumbing, from the size of its canals and pumps to court mandates on water quality, prevent the district from moving water south even if the land were purchased. Federal laws protecting the tiny Cape Sable seaside sparrow and other endangered species also stand in the way, he said.
“We can’t move it forward,” he told board members.
Backers of the land purchase, including a heavy contingent from Martin and St. Lucie counties where discharges from Lake Okeechobee set off toxic algae blooms two years ago, accused board members of selling out to U.S. Sugar, which no longer wants to sell the land. Letting the deal expire could cost the state years in restoration efforts, they said.
“This is about the maddest I’ve seen this audience,” said Jon Ullman, Everglades senior organizer for the Sierra Club. “People are furious. They expect leadership and they feel like they’re not getting it.”
Many in the group repeatedly pointed to a University of Florida study commissioned by the Florida Senate in 2014 and completed this month that laid out the woes of the ecosystem. Water storage, the UF team concluded, was critical. Among the solutions suggested was “the current U.S. Sugar land purchase option.”
Everglades Foundation wetland ecologist Stephen Davis submitted the petition to help lend “scientific opinion in support” of the need for storage. The petition included signatures from dozens of scientists, mostly from Florida universities, but also from Duke, Columbia, Penn State and Smith College as well as the U.S. Geological Survey and National Park Service.
More than 80 people signed up to address the board Thursday morning, although their pleas to take action may ultimately be meaningless: While the board asked for Kivett’s report, the matter was not up for a vote. Only one more meeting is scheduled, on April 9, before the state legislative session ends May 1, leaving lawmakers little time to consider whether to include the large purchase in the first year of the 20-year trust.
“You’re our water management board. We’re asking you to tell people in the Legislature what to do,” said former Martin County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla, sister of former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. “There are folks up there who wouldn’t care if South Florida fell off the map.”