With Big Sugar’s backing, Putnam not so sweet on clean-water solution

In June 2016, boats docked at Central Marine in Stuart, Fla., are surrounded by blue green algae.
In June 2016, boats docked at Central Marine in Stuart, Fla., are surrounded by blue green algae. AP

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam seems quite selective when it comes to his concerns — suspiciously so.

Surprising, no. Disappointing, absolutely.

At a recent Associated Press Legislative Planning Session in Tallahassee, he spoke of citrus greening, pythons in the Everglades, screwworms, the mosquito-borne Zika virus and the Giant African Land Snail.

But the toxic blue-green algae that has ravaged both of Florida’s coasts in two of the past three years? You know, the putrid, disgusting goo that has sickened children, closed businesses, killed fish and wildlife and forced people along the waterways to abandon their homes? Not so much.

On Zika, Putnam stands firm: “A state that had 105 million visitors last year can’t tolerate a widespread epidemic of a disease that would keep families away,” he asserts. Yet when it comes to an algae outbreak that forced a state of emergency in 2016 that lasted 225 days, closing beaches and restricting fishing, our Putnam was mute.

The mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus, he noted, could well return: “Warm weather can bring that back out,” he cautioned reporters.

He was oblivious, however, to the likely recurrence of the blue-green algae, toxic bacteria that take hold whenever water levels in Lake Okeechobee force the Army Corps to flush the filthy excess into coastal waterways and estuaries as a flood-control measure.

Senate President Joe Negron is right about Putnam’s opposition: “If there was ooze and poisonous fluids flowing down the center of Bartow and Polk County (Putnam’s hometown), we wouldn’t be talking about an abstract schedule or making comments that somehow this is a political effort.”

For decades, there has been broad scientific consensus on the solution to the algae crisis: increased water storage south of Lake Okeechobee, so the stored water can be cleansed and put to use saving a dehydrated Everglades and collapsing Florida Bay.

But Putnam’s having none of it. The proud holder of a bachelor’s degree in food and resource economics, he knows better than the hundreds of scientists who have long advocated a reservoir south of the lake.

“You put all these engineers in a room, you put all these federal and state partners in a room,” he said, and “they come up with these big plans, and they only seem to last until the next election, when somebody else wants to air drop in a new boxcar load of cash for the latest new shiny-object solution.”

Forget the reservoir, said Putnam. “I was opposed to it the first time under Governor Crist, and I still am.”

The real culprit, Putnam believes, are broken septic systems — with a healthy dollop of good old-fashioned Florida regionalism on the side. “Nobody has been more focused on getting water policy right than for the state than I have,” he said — “for the whole state, not just the part that is south of Lake Okeechobee.”

Call me cynical, but I can’t help thinking that Putman might be influenced by the more than $250,000 that Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar have poured into his “Florida Grown” Political Committee in the past 20 months. It might be a mere coincidence that these two sugar companies happen to own much of the land in question, but I think not.

One reporter even asked Putnam if he believed he would ever take a position against the sugar companies.

His answer: “I was opposed to it (buying U.S. Sugar land) the first iteration of the buyout, which is not the position they held, so I would say I already have a track record.”

When he was reminded that, back then, Florida Crystals shared his opposition to the buyout, (unlike U.S. Sugar, which had contracted to sell all their holdings), Putnam gave what might have been the most telling response of his career.

“You didn’t qualify that when there’s division amongst them, I gotta pick.”

Kimberly Mitchell is executive director of the Everglades Trust. She was a West Palm Beach city commissioner from 2002 to 2015.