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Nancy Smith

Not a Single Legislative Delegation Makes Buying U.S. Sugar Land a Priority

February 26, 2015 - 6:00pm

The outlook might get brighter next week for the Everglades Foundation and its allies, but for now their voice crying out to buy U.S. Sugar Corp. land is like a wolf howling in the middle of the Tundra.

As far as I can tell, no legislative delegation in South Florida has made a 2015 priority of spending $350 million for the company's 46,800 acres.

Not one.

That's zero delegations.

Even in Palm Beach County, ground zero for the Everglades Agricultural Area, the county lists its environmental priority for Everglades restoration funding this way: "The County supports State funding of at least $100 million for Everglades Restoration, particularly for shovel-ready projects located in Palm Beach County. The County also supports the States efforts to persuade the Federal government to allocate additional funds for Everglades Restoration."

Shovel-ready projects, not sugar land.

Rachel Ondrus, executive director of the Palm Beach delegation office, told me the delegation itself is backing just three specific projects and they're all local -- an amendment to the city of West Palm Beach Water Catchment Area; the city of West Palm Beach Firefighters Pension Fund; and a continuation of the School Signage Program.

The Miami-Dade County delegation unanimously selected its priorities last week. Buying U.S. Sugar land wasn't among them.I am proud that our diverse delegation is able to come together to advocate for the issues most important to the residents of Miami-Dade County, said Sen. Anitere Flores, chairwoman of the delegation, in a prepared statement. What are those issues? Protecting its safety-net hospital, securing funding for public institutions of higher education and protecting consumers from increased property insurance rates.

No luck for sugar land in Broward County, either. Faith Lombardo, administrative coordinator in the Broward delegation office, said the delegation produces a priorities list, but it's up to individual members whether they want to follow it. When I asked her if she had heard any legislators talking up purchase of U.S. Sugar's 46,800 acres, she said, "No, not even one."

In Martin County, where massive lake water releases into already-swollen canals poisoned the water for months on end in 2013, Ann Bolduc in the delegation office said she hasn't heard a word out of legislators' mouths about the U.S. Sugar land buy. "We don't put out priorities as a group," she said. "But I haven't seen any of the individual legislators list it. ... Of course, there's a long way to go."

In Lee County, where the Caloosahatchee River suffered the same devastation from polluted water after 2013 lake releases sent west, Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, spokesman for the delegation, told me, "I haven't heard anything among our members about buying sugar land. That's not a priority.

"Speaking personally," he added, "I'm against the U.S. Sugar land buy. We have billions of dollars in shovel-ready projects in this state. We need to get on with those."

He said, "It really is pie in the sky to think you could return the Everglades to what they were 200 years ago. To do that, you would have to dispossess 3 million people living in a lot of towns down here like Wellington, all part of the Everglades once upon a time."

Caldwell also said, "I'm not even sure it would be legal to do what they (environmentalists) are asking us to do -- buy land we're not going to use but trade for other land ..."

None of this nonchalance comes as a shock to me, frankly. Florida pays some of the finest scientists, engineers and planners in the world -- not just in the nation -- to work on Everglades restoration. In five years I haven't heard any of them -- not a single eminent man or woman of science -- jumping on the Everglades Foundation bandwagon.

And I know if I were a politician running for office -- and I believed with all my heart that the only way to solve our water problems and fix the Everglades is to buy up land and flow water south ... well ... I would chain myself to the door of the South Florida Water Management District and scream bloody murder until somebody paid attention to me. Figuratively speaking, at least.

None of that has happened.

However ... and this is a big however.

There's hope for the Everglades Foundation, Trust, Coalition back-to-the-future plan. Real hope. In fact, the "zero" delegation number could change after Monday.

That's when the University of Florida Water Institute is due to hand the Legislature its water flow study.

"I'm waiting to see that," Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told me Friday. "As leader of the Senate Budget Committee, I pushed hard to get the $250,000 UF study included in the budget last year. This is going to tell us the most cost-effective and workable means of moving water south."

Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, said she personally has been committed to ending the devastating lake water releases and therefore looks forward to results of the UF study. "I'm looking for the most cost-efficient and complete fix to make sure polluted water is cleaned and flows preferably south, but somewhere besides into our waterways and lagoon."

I admit, I like Gov. Scott's plan. It's a kind of back-to-the-future, too. Back to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). Its all about timing, flow and distribution.

Scientists and engineers tell me real storage is needed north of the lake to help attenuate flow. More important, the local basin projects will help the estuaries dramatically. That's why we need to build and fund the C-43 and C-44 reservoir.

It was Charlie Crist who deep-sixed Accerler8 in favor of his shiny new dime -- buying out U.S. Sugar. And why we're having to rebuild the A-1 reservoir.

CERP promised to capture water loss to tide (preventing damaging releases), enlarge the water pie so one user group (agriculture, urban areas or natural systems) didnt need to compete with one of the others and distribute flow in a more natural way through decompartmentalization. Under Jeb Bush, the state had undertaken and fast-tracked these steps.

I have real hope for Scott's back-to-the-future plan. But I'm certainly interested to hear -- perhaps as early as next week -- the results of the UF study.


Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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