Head Of Florida's Senate Fights To Protect The Everglades

Feb 15, 2017
Originally published on February 15, 2017 6:29 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In Florida, coastal communities are fighting with sugar farmers over water, and the water they're fighting over is in Lake Okeechobee. The question is where to put it when it flows out of the lake. That's because it's polluted with nutrients. And last summer, water from the lake caused massive algae blooms on Florida's east and west coasts. NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: This was the scene last summer in Stuart on Florida's east coast - thick mats of blue-green algae collected in the St. Lucie River, driving away fishermen and closing beaches. Mike Conner is an environmental activist.

MIKE CONNER: Anywhere in this river - look closely between the rafts of algae here. You see the little, tiny particles? You'll see that all the way across this river.

ALLEN: The algae bloom was caused by polluted water from Lake Okeechobee. After an especially rainy summer, water from the lake was released into canals that flow through coastal communities like Stuart. The algae bloom in Stuart was big, smelly and worst of all toxic, a health threat to anyone who came into contact with it.

JOE NEGRON: Our local hospital, if you went to the emergency room, there was a question on the questionnaire - have you been in contact with the water in this community?

ALLEN: Joe Negron grew up in the area and now represents it in Florida's Senate. Last summer's algae bloom, Negron says, was the worst in memory. And now, as president of Florida's Senate, he's in a position to do something about it.

NEGRON: It turns our community into literally a cesspool. What I'm saying is a very simple, non-radical notion that says we have to have a better solution than we will flood estuaries that just coincidentally happen to be near where the lake is.

ALLEN: Negron's proposing that Florida spend about $1.2 billion to buy 60,000 acres of sugarcane land south of Lake Okeechobee for a reservoir. The water would be treated and cleaned there and sent south to the Everglades. Florida has a special trust fund set up for just this purpose, acquiring land for environmental protection.

Negron may have a hard time convincing fellow Republican leaders to go along. But his toughest opponents are the people who live and work south of Lake Okeechobee. At town meetings and hearings, people with connections to the sugar industry have been speaking out against the land buy. Tammy Jackson Moore says she's worried the sale will lead to the closure of another sugar mill.

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TAMMY JACKSON MOORE: Over a 20-year period, the Glades has given up more than 100,000 acres of active farmland in the name of Everglades restoration. In doing so, we've closed down three sugar mills.

ALLEN: It's a big difference from 2009, when the largest producer, U.S. Sugar, signed a deal to sell nearly all of its holdings to the state. With a national recession and a change in administrations in Tallahassee, that deal was put on hold. And now, Eric Draper of Audubon Florida says with sugar prices near an all-time high, growers don't want to sell.

ERIC DRAPER: Sugar's a very profitable product right now. They're making so much money. They want as much cane as they can grow to feed into their mills and get that stuff on supermarket shelves.

ALLEN: This month, after Negron's plan was introduced, the largest sugar growers in Florida sent a letter to Senate leaders saying they would not willingly sell any of their lands to the state. Grower John Hundley delivered the message at a recent Senate hearing.

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JOHN HUNDLEY: We do not support any governmental acquisition of additional farmland south of Lake Okeechobee to solve problems and issues caused by water coming from the north and in the coastal estuaries.

ALLEN: But Negron's position as Senate president gives him a lot of clout. If growers reject this proposal, he has another card he can play. Florida still has the option of buying over 100,000 acres under the old deal, more than enough to protect Florida's coastal estuaries. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.