When George Barley began the effort to restore the flow of clean freshwater to the Everglades and Florida Bay in the 1990s, he was told that the best government could (or would) do was clean out the culverts under Tamiami Trail.
For the next two decades, the battle to save the Everglades has been mostly a David vs .Goliath effort.
Goliath was Big Sugar: Florida Crystals, U.S. Sugar and their armies of lawyers, lobbyists and politicians.
David was the group of scientists, hydrologists, wetland experts, engineers and citizens who knew that Big Sugar was polluting the Everglades and blocking the natural southerly flow of water from Lake Okeechobee.
When the history of Everglades restoration is written, 2016 will be remembered as a pivotal point. As record rains during 2015-2016 tested the capacity of Lake Okeechobee, the Army Corps had no choice but to send the excess into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, setting off an environmental catastrophe: historic algae blooms that forced the affected areas to endure a “State of Emergency” that lasted 242 days.
As TV beamed images of slimy blue-green algae and residents complained that it smelled like “death on a cracker,” Big Sugar stood like a Colossus to block a solution. One argument after another was tossed into the public dialogue. As one legislator observed, their arguments were like a game of “Whack-a-Mole”: as soon as one spurious argument was refuted, another was advanced.
For years, that strategy had worked, but this year, as NASA’s satellites showed the 239-mile algae bloom was clearly visible from space, the destruction became obvious even within the Tallahassee bubble.
The lost summer of 2016 led citizens to organize. New groups named Bullsugar and Captains for Clean Water stood shoulder-to-shoulder with older organizations like the Everglades Trust, Bonefish Tarpon & Trust, Florida Sportsman Magazine and the Everglades Foundation. Soon, corporate giants like Orvis, Patagonia, Costa Sunglasses, Guy Harvey, and others joined the effort.
Soon, Florida’s political leaders got on board, signing the “NowOrNeverglades Declaration” and earning the endorsements of the grass roots. Nearly 100,000 Floridians signed on: they called, they emailed and they met in person with their legislators. They spoke as one to demand action and used social media to engage with like-minded people across the state.
Armed with overwhelming evidence and science and backed by tens of thousands of supporters, Senate President Joe Negron made the EAA Reservoir his top legislative priority. Even at great personal sacrifice — he resigned his lucrative law partnership to wage this fight — Negron showed extraordinary integrity in leadership.
Meanwhile, the “Now Or Neverglades” movement grew louder and stronger. Boat captains, fishing guides, realtors, rowing instructors, college students from all parts of Florida, hoteliers, Chambers of Commerce, moms and dads and their children, small business owners and health care professionals made repeated trips to Tallahassee testifying to the legislature in gut-wrenching terms about the nightmare they were being forced to endure. They begged the lawmakers to adopt the Negron plan.
In response, Big Sugar cranked up its PR machine, blasting out newspaper columns that they penned for their sympathizers. They spent thousands on daily TV commercials proclaiming their corporate citizenship and the “food” they produce.
They advanced a ludicrous, desperate argument that their fellow citizens were “anti-farmer” and hired 100 lobbyists and lawyers to quash the southern reservoir. They launched and underwrote faux “citizens” groups, like “Floridians for Clean Water” and “Stand Up North Florida” in a losing effort to confuse the public.
Bold and steadfast leadership in the Florida Senate from Joe Negron, Jack Latvala and Rob Bradley proved to be too much for the once all-powerful sugar lobby. The Florida House, led by Richard Corcoran, Thad Altman and Heather Fitzenhagen, agreed to the plan.
In the end, the good guys finally won. “Now Or Neverglades” became the unstoppable force that overcame the immovable object, and we are finally on our way to sending clean water south.
Somewhere, George Barley must be smiling.
Kimberly Mitchell is the executive director of The Everglades Trust.