As the deadline to purchase sugar-owned land approaches, the spotlight is once again on United States Sugar Corporation and the environmental groups calling on the state to exercise its option.
The contract-bound option to purchase an initial 46,800 acres of land owned by U.S. Sugar expires this October, and environmental groups like the Everglades Trust and Everglades Foundation are signaling their desire for the state to purchase the land with intense lobbying efforts.
Environmentalists are asking the state to purchase the land in order to send more water from Lake Okeechobee south, instead of to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers to the east and west.
By purchasing U.S. Sugar’s land, they claim, more water can be stored and sent south without harming the coastal estuaries.
The land in question lies in Hendry County and is spread out in various-sized chunks, the largest and most viable chunk being a roughly 26,000-acre parcel directly south of the lake. If the state purchased the land, it could turn the parcels into reservoirs that would store water released from Lake Okeechobee during the rainy season. That water could then be sent south to the Everglades.
The state would purchase the lands for $350 million, as laid out in the contract, and would then spend millions more to turn those parcels into reservoirs that could store water and in turn send that water to the Everglades.
The amount of water that could be stored in the largest, 26,000-acre area is “a drop in the bucket,” according to Judy Sanchez, senior director of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs for U.S. Sugar.
The reservoir could only be dug four feet deep without having to build a levee around the retention area, explained Sanchez. A 26,000-acre area dug four-feet deep could hold about 104,0000-acre-feet of water. In 2013, when the water levels of Lake Okeechobee reached critical levels, the Army Corps of Engineers began discharging large amounts of water to either coast via the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. About 4.5-million-acre-feet of freshwater was discharged to the coastal estuaries in 2013.
Storing just over 100,000-acre-feet of water south of the lake would seem to do little to stop large amounts of water from being released to the coasts in periods of high rainfall.
If water is stored on the specified areas of land with the intention of moving it south, other constraints identified by the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) would impact the amount of water that could be moved south.
According to information released by SFWMD, federal regulations limit the amount of water allowed to enter the Stormwater Treatment Areas (STA), Water Conservations Areas (WCA) and Everglades National Park (ENP) south of Lake Okeechobee.
Nesting birds that have made their homes in the STAs and ENP also limit the amount of water that can be sent south from Lake Okeechobee. The nests of these birds are federally protected; too much water could destroy those nests and would be a violation of federal law, according to the information.
Sanchez said purchasing U.S. Sugar land would not fix the coasts’ problems and accused the Everglades Foundation of using serious water issues for its own gain.
“Exercising the option does not solve the problem. … Buying additional land would only take a huge amount of money away from approved projects,” said Sanchez. “The Everglades Foundation is using very real and very serious water issues to further their political agenda against the Florida Sugar Industry.”
Sanchez is not the only one sounding the alarm against purchasing U.S. Sugar lands. Local officials said taking U.S. Sugar’s land out of production would be detrimental to the area’s livelihood.
“It would take 30,000 acres out of production instantaneously and it would have a detrimental effect on our bottom line. We’re already the state’s leading, perennial winner in unemployment,” said Karson Turner, chairman of the Hendry County Board of County Commissioners. “I think it’s a smoke and mirrors move by the environmental community to take our eye off of building projects that are actually going to help the system.”
County Commissioner Janet Taylor expressed her own concern for the people who rely on U.S. Sugar to live.
“That’s our livelihood, what is going to happen to us when they arbitrarily want to buy up land to store water? Who is more important? The people or the water? And I know that water is essential to our living, but what about our jobs? Sugar has been a great corporate community sponsor, bringing jobs, providing resources for our parks, our pools. Everything we’ve got we can pretty much go back and say U.S. Sugar had a hand in it,” said Commissioner Taylor.
Clewiston Mayor Phillip Roland wants the state to focus its attention on what he calls “the real problem”: the north-side of the lake.
“The problem is north of the lake. If you store water north of the lake, then we can get rid of our problems. It used to take five months for water to meander into Lake Okeechobee from the Kissimmee River Valley. It now takes 2.5 days. They straightened a system that can’t work. The only way that things are going to work is to store water north of the lake,” said Mayor Roland.
“It’s time for everybody to look in the mirror. The solution is to go where the problem starts, up north, all the way up to Orlando,” said Sanchez.
Though environmental groups and concerned citizens on both coasts are pushing for the state to purchase sugar’s land, Florida’s legislators do not seem eager to rush into any expensive land deals, especially with millions of dollars already invested in projects aimed to address Florida’s water issues.
As reported by CBS Miami, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli (R-Merritt Island) remains in favor of maintaining lands already owned by the state.
“If we truly want to honor our beautiful state, then we should spend these early years making sure we can maintain the 5.3 million acres of conservation land we already own.”