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Nancy Smith

There's No Business Like Everglades Show Business

April 2, 2015 - 6:00pm

Buy the land, don't buy the land -- it's all pretend, all a big show and all for naught.

The pretend: In case you missed it, "protesters" against buying 46,800 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land turned up at Thursday's South Florida Water Management District meeting in West Palm Beach shouting slogans and waving signs. But before the day ended they were found out as frauds -- actors paid $75 to play angry taxpayers by an anonymous sugar-land opponent.

The show: One day later, the other side -- the Everglades Coalition, South Florida environmentalists who want the land deal completed -- was rounding up college students on Easter break, offering them what the coalition calls "scholarships" to join the third annual Everglades Action Day in Tallahassee -- and, oh, yes, while they're at the Capitol, lobby for the U.S. Sugar land deal.

Charter buses leave from Miami, West Palm Beach, Stuart and Fort Myers onMonday.

Here's a minimum of what participating students get: free round-trip bus transportation to Tallahassee on Monday, a crash course in how to lobby for the cause, the expectation that they will bend the ear of legislators involved in land decisions, a free hotel stay, a dinner, good seats at a Jimmy Buffet concert with commentary from best-selling author Carl Hiaasen, and transportation to and from all events.

In an email Friday to Sunshine State News, Judy Sanchez, spokesperson for U.S. Sugar Corp., argued against the Everglades Coalition's outrage over actors at Thursday's SFWMD meeting. She wrote, "I guess if you give free bus fare to Tally ($100?) and free hotel room at the Wyndham ($100) to a bunch of college students and provide lobby training to have them learn your message (oh, and then you throw in a Jimmy Buffett concert and that's not buying folks??)."

Needless to say, it isn't 2009 and U.S. Sugar doesn't want to sell its land anymore.

Meanwhile, Cara Capp, national co-chair of the Everglades Coalition, insisted students' participation is nothing like hiring actors. On Friday she told Christine Stapleton of the Palm Beach Post, "(Students) are spending their own time and energy. Were lucky to be able to offer scholarships.

The naught:Both sides can pay and play-act all they want. I would bet my paycheck all they're doing is playing out a charade.

I predict students Monday will be talking to a brick wall. Legislators will be polite, they love talking to students. But they aren't going to pay $500 million for land eventhe Water Management District isn't interested in.

And then there's the matter of the University of Florida Water Institute report.When Florida lawmakers get a good look at pages 6 and 8, a half-billion-dollar land buy to stop the pollution of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries is going to be a tougher sell than a family vacation at the Holiday Inn Kabul.

Those two pages work like a tag team.

I'll spare you the technical explanation. What page 6 says in everyday language is, nearly 80 percent of the water to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries is local basin runoff. That means only 20 percent has been coming from Lake Okeechobee.

Then, on page 8 the report states, after completion of all the current projects -- IRL-5, C-43, the Restoration Strategies, and Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) -- lake discharges will be reduced only by 55 percent.But -- reducing 55 percent of the 20 percent of the water the lake contributes to the estuaries means you move that 20 percent contribution to less than 10 percent of the fresh water that goes into the estuaries.

I know it's complicated, but this is the bottom line legislators already have heard in testimony:Florida is going a long way toward solving the lake-to-estuaries component of the water problem by working to complete the projects already on the table and with land already owned by the state.

With all the demands on Amendment 1 money in the first year especially, and all the ready-to-roll projects needing a cash-infused kick start, it seems unlikely lawmakers -- even senators who don't want to see land buys shortchanged in the 2015 budget -- will want to spend $500 million for land and another $1 billion for a project.

Nor will they want to listen to a stirred-up Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam hoisting the banner for retaining productive farmland and safeguarding the jobs and economic activity it brings in rural South Florida.

Projects are on track to help the Everglades and the northern estuaries. In fact, there is more good news for the River of Grass on this third Everglades Day than there has been in a very many years.

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

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