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Florida lawmakers still wrestling with bill changing Everglades restoration rules

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Members of the Florida House of Representatives are now considering the question raised by the most controversial environmental bill to be filed in Tallahassee this session, if not in years: Who gets the first taste of the cleaner water flowing into the Everglades?

In 2000, Congress approved an Everglades restoration plan that has become the most ambitious ecosystem renewal in American history.

The primary goal is to direct additional billions of gallons of clean water into the Everglades. All that clean water should help reverse environmental damage done by a centuries-worth of rampant development, polluted runoff from farming around Lake Okeechobee, and flood control efforts with unseen ecological repercussions.

Congress said improved water flow could, secondarily, provide for farming needs.

Yet Senator Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, filed a bill earlier this month that would give industrial-level agricultural water users around Lake Okeechobee a huge turn of the spigot – before the water reaches the heart of Everglades.

The Senator’s measure, SB 2508, would put into law that industries like Big Sugar, who use billions of gallons of fresh water to fertilize, grow and process their crops, then release it back into the southern flow, be allowed to continue to use at least as much as they have in the past. Big Sugar contends they treat the water they use before releasing it back into the system.

Albritton said his bill is all about “accountability” for the South Florida Water Management District since it’s the agency that oversees much of the Lake Okeechobee watershed. With the bill law, watch will be kept over the SFWMD to make sure it doesn’t reduce the amount of water available for “existing legal users,” the biggest of whom are sugar growers and other agricultural interests around Lake O.

Albritton’s district includes parts of Lee and Charlotte counties as well as Okeechobee, Glades, Desoto, Hardee and Highlands, long the home of Big Sugar and other powerful agriculture producers. He is set to become Senate President in 2024.

Albritton’s last-minute measure was filed in a way that avoided the typical scrutiny bills receive in both legislative chambers. He also labeled it a “conforming bill,” which is a special designation meant only for potential laws with wording that directs how the state spends tax dollars. Instead, SB 2508 could make substantial changes in Lake Okeechobee water management plans, including the possibility of sending untreated water down the Caloosahatchee or St. Lucie rivers.

Critics, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, pounced.

“Rather than advancing legislation seeking to affect a major change in policy, SB 2508 is being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark,” DeSantis wrote in a statement. “I have been a champion for Everglades restoration and oppose any measure that derails progress on reducing harmful discharges and sending more water to the Everglades.

Albritton’s bill has touched a raw nerve not only in the state’s political ranks, but also among Florida’s business and environmental ranks.

Charter boat captains traveled to Tallahassee to express their concern that if Lake Okeechobee-area agriculture is allowed to use so much of the clean water it could ruin fishing in Florida Bay the way polluted water did prior to environmental awareness in the late 1990s. Their fear is, despite so much more clean water, after ag takes its draw not enough will be left to make it all the way south to Florida Bay to maintain the perfect mix of fresh and salt water that fish there thrive in.

Albritton added amendments he said would make the bill’s scope easier to understand, and counter what critics believe to be inequality in Lake O’s water usage, but it failed to quell the tumult.

“It’s a toxic stew of bad proposals that undermine Florida’s environmental protections and protect powerful industries — most notably Big Sugar,” Friends of the Everglades wrote in a statement. “The amended version remains very concerning.”

One of those concerns is a little-mentioned section of SB 2508 that will allow Big Sugar to forever have precedence over what water remains in the system in case of a drought under a 2007 rule that would be made into law. Everyone else in South Florida, and the thirsty Everglades, too, would be a secondary user. Veteran Florida environmental reporter Craig Pittman’s commentary for Florida Phoenix explains more here.

Those concerns - that Albritton’s bill, if it becomes law, means agriculture’s thirst gets quenched first -- is not already without precedent.

In 2017, the SFWMD reported that $1.8 billion spent on Everglades restoration efforts during the previous 20 years had undone decades of pollution: Ninety percent of the Everglades water met measurable ultra-clean water quality standards that year.

In 2020, the Everglades Trust reported that Big Sugar pulled a massive amount of water that would have drifted south into the center of the Everglades to benefit wildlife, water quality, and plants. That year, Kimberly Matthews, then executive director of the trust, wrote: “This past March and April were the hottest and driest on record. The sugar giants pulled 70 billion gallons from Lake O, but Everglades National Park received 0.3 percent of that amount.

“Put another way, for every gallon of water the sugar industry got, Everglades National Park, a World Heritage Site, received a tablespoon,” she wrote.

“At its core, restoration is simple. We all know that the answer to saving our Everglades is to send clean water south,” Matthews wrote. “Unfortunately, there is a whole lot of politics embedded in the Everglades.”

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health.