Greed and politics are destroying the Everglades

White pelican stands in the shallows of Snake Bight in Everglades National Park.
White pelican stands in the shallows of Snake Bight in Everglades National Park. Miami Herald

We heard a lot this political season about government corruption. While not all corruption is illegal, every instance of it is certainly unethical. Americans just showed they are willing to take extreme measures to combat corruption, and our local officials would do well to take heed, for a dangerous corruption is on open display here in Florida, and by any means legal and possible we will eradicate it. Indeed, we must.

Every day in Tallahassee, Gov. Rick Scott subverts the public interest and does the bidding of Big Sugar in exchange for campaign cash. Big Sugar, in this instance, is U.S. Sugar Corp., whose president and CEO is Robert Buker, Jr., and Florida Crystals, owned and operated by the Fanjul family. The result is that the Everglades are in peril and therefore so, too, is the future of South Florida and its residents.

In order to survive, the Everglades needs a steady supply of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee. But even if that water could reach the Everglades and ultimately the Florida Keys, it is heavily polluted with nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff. That’s the reason past summers have seen such toxic waters and algae blooms along the coasts, decimating the fishing, small businesses and tourism.

Incidentally, much of the pollution in Lake Okeechobee is from previous decades of Big Sugar backpumping toxic water from its land to the south directly into the lake. Such polluting is routine; U.S. Sugar Corp. has been convicted of knowingly dumping hazardous wastes into the Everglades.

There is a solution that is incredibly simple and scientifically sound. Water from Lake Okeechobee can be stored in land just south of the lake, where it can be cleaned, keeping toxic water out of the St. Lucie, Caloosahatchee, Atlantic and Gulf and providing water for the Everglades and the Florida Keys in the dry season and staving off saltwater intrusion. It could also provide South Florida all the drinking water it needs. Again, very simple and backed by hard science.

Enter politics.

Big Sugar owns that land just south of the lake. In 2010, U.S. Sugar signed a contract finalizing the sale of up to 153,000 acres by October 2020. As for the money to buy it, the voters of Florida indicated where that should come from — themselves. In the election of 2014, 75 percent of them, an astonishing majority in politics, approved the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment, which provided the state the money it needed to complete this purchase, among other projects.

But U.S. Sugar decided, in the end, it didn’t really want to sell. How was it so easily able to thwart the overwhelming will of the people? Money. And lots of it. In the past 10 years, Big Sugar has given upwards of $60 million and more just for statewide elections. That doesn’t count federal elections, and even that number is likely to be too low since the Citizens United ruling has made it easy for corporations to hide just how much money they’re donating to politics.

It is clear why Big Sugar does not want to sell this land: greed. It really does come down to more big houses and more shiny cars for a handful of them at the expense of drinking water, a healthy Everglades, and safe oceans for millions of us. That greed is so short-sighted, for it’s their drinking water, their Everglades and their oceans, too.

Less clear is Gov. Scott’s lack of courage to uphold his duty to defend Florida’s Constitution and enact the will of its people, unless he’s planning a further career in politics, for which there is that unending need of campaign money. But if he continues to bend to the will of Big Sugar, it is not hyperbole to say that the fate of South Florida and, therefore, Florida, hangs in the balance.

But again, there’s another simple solution. In 2000, Congress passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), part of which called for Big Sugar to sell the acreage below Lake Okeechobee needed for restoration. Big Sugar is on record as supporting CERP. Some of its top officials were active participants in the meetings that created the legislation. All it would take is for Big Sugar to identify 60,000 acres it would sell to the state as a reservoir below Lake Okeechobee. Failing that, the governor could put public interest ahead of private gain and use eminent domain to acquire those acres.

The solution is simple; the way forward clear. As citizens we are stewards, and if we shirk that responsibility, this land of South Florida that we call home will someday be unable to sustain us, all of us, including Governor Scott and those rare few atop Big Sugar. Their deed can become our salvation as we work truly together to help our neighbors and preserve our unique natural heritage.

Mary Barley is chairman and president of the Everglades Trust.