Top lawmaker calls for buying up sugar land to clean Everglades

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, left, with Gov. Rick Scott on Jan. 12, 2016, in Tallahassee.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, left, with Gov. Rick Scott on Jan. 12, 2016, in Tallahassee. AP

In what environmentalists are calling a significant breakthrough in Everglades restoration efforts, incoming Senate President Joe Negron leapfrogged over agricultural industry opposition and on Tuesday called for a massive $2.4 billion state and federal land-buying program to buy sugar land to store water south of Lake Okeechobee and repair the fragile Everglades ecosystem.

The idea — to store and clean phosphorus-laden water before releasing it into Everglades National Park — has been demanded by environmentalists for the past 16 years, but efforts to buy the land needed for the project have been sidelined in the face of agriculture and sugar-industry opposition. Lawmakers and water management district officials have instead pushed clean-up projects on the periphery of the Everglades, not in the heart of the region where working farmland can be displaced.

“All the evidence that I see confirms what I'm here to announce today: We must buy land south,”' Negron said to loud applause at a press conference in his hometown, Stuart.

Negron’s announcement comes after a summer of polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries have led to toxic algae blooms along the state’s Treasure Coast and in his hometown.

Negron, a Republican, announced that ending the discharges and finding the funds for the land-buy south of the lake would be his “No. 1 personal priority.”

He urged the sugar companies who own the land to be open to the water-cleaning marshes “to make this reservoir happen.” But he also conceded reaching agreement “will not be easy.”

The battle over Everglades restoration has been an epic one in Florida for more than 30 years, with legislative leaders and governors declaring numerous breakthroughs as the sugar industry worked to oppose and delay removing vast tracts of land that could reduce the supply of sugar cane to their profitable mills.

The response from the industry Tuesday was no different.

The sugar industry “has already lost more than 100,000 acres of farmland in the past 20 years for restoration,” wrote Florida Crystals Corporation and Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida. “The real price of today’s proposal is the loss of jobs and economic activity in the Glades communities.”

The groups noted that while Negron met with a water-management consultant for Florida Crystals last week at his invitation “to share solutions,”' Negron “did not mention today’s proposal at the meeting.”

“We will be reviewing the details of the plan announced today by Sen. Joe Negron as soon as they are made available to the public, especially since his proposal calls for taking another 60,000 acres of productive farmland out of production in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), most of which is our private land,” said Gaston Cantens, vice president of Florida Crystals.

Negron proposes purchasing one of two 60,000-acre land parcels that “provide the most promise” because they are situated near existing canals.

He said that one parcel is owned 60 percent by Florida Crystals, 30 percent by U.S. Sugar and 10 percent by other land-owners, including the state. The other parcel is owned 60 percent by Florida Crystals, 30 percent by King Ranch and 10 percent by other landowners.

U.S. Sugar, which continues to hold an option to sell 153,000 acres of sugar land to the state by 2020, would not comment on the proposal.

The Negron plan relies on dividing the cost of the $2.4 billion project evenly between the state and federal government. The state would be in charge of the clean-up efforts, removing control of the project from the federal Army Corps of Engineers. Florida would finance its portion with $100 million in Amendment 1 funds over the next 20 years by buying $1.2 billion in bonds next year.

Negron worked to earmark $200 million a year in Legacy Florida money dedicated to Everglades restoration projects. The money comes from the Amendment 1 Land Acquisition Trust Fund voters approved in 2014, an amount that has exceeded $700 million in the past two years.

Gov. Rick Scott, who would have to sign off on the deal, was non-committal about the idea Tuesday, saying in a statement his office was reviewing all options. The South Florida Water Management District, which is appointed by the governor, has recently rejected a call to join the Army Corps of Engineers in discussing potential clean-up projects that could involve purchasing agricultural land south of Lake Okeechobee.

Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, was also non-committal but generous to Negron. “Any proposal by President-designate Negron will be reviewed by the House with seriousness and respect,” he said.

Environmental groups commended Negron for his leadership.

“This is a breakthrough,”' said Eric Eikenberg, president of the Everglades Foundation. “Joe Negron, as one of the most powerful people in Tallahassee, has stepped up and put political capital on the line and he's doing it for his constituents and for the greater good of the state.”

Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida called Negron's proposal “an amazing thing.”

“He is responding to his constituents, who are very upset and suffered a tragedy, he surveyed the interests groups, the agency and he has done his research,” Draper said. “He has come up with a great solution.”

Negron said the conclusion is one that he believes everyone who has studied the problem — from the University of Florida to Congress — has agreed to, but it is only one part of the answer.

“"We need to make our case,”' he said. “... Everyone agrees we have to have storage south of the lake as a piece of the puzzle as a way to prevent these discharges.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas