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Much-maligned Everglades bill awaits governor's decision

The Everglades
The Everglades

The most controversial piece of environmental legislation to bounce between chambers during the Florida Legislature’s just-ended 2022 session has trickled onto the desk of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The proposed law, which was under consideration by DeSantis on Wednesday, started out as a yet-another power struggle for control over Lake Okeechobee’s water between agriculture users and Everglades restorationists.

At its core, Senate Bill 2508 would have allowed sugar interests to continue taking the first chug of the lake water as they have for decades, siphoning off massive amounts of the precious resource to grow its thirsty crops. That also raised fears of more releases of Lake Okeechobee water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, which have caused outbreaks of harmful blue-green algae. The measure would have also shaken up status the quo among the agencies performing the Everglades restoration - a move critics, again, say is in furtherance of special interests.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, whose 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 said the Lake Okeechobee-area agriculture industry needs the billions of gallons of fresh water to fertilize, grow and process their crops 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 ecosystem.

When Albritton filed his bill last month he said it also would ensure “accountability” for the South Florida Water Management District, which oversees much of the Lake Okeechobee watershed. The bill would provide oversight of 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 the lake.

One fellow republican was extremely unhappy not only that Albritton introduced the bill, but the way he appeared to try to avoid public input, and that his suggested legislation could weaken the stronger environmental laws and practices that are being instituted as the Everglades restoration progresses.

“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,” Gov. 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. Moreover, I reject any attempt to deprioritize the EAA Reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee.”

During the past month, SB 2508 was approved in Albritton’s committee and a companion bill was moved along in the House. Eventually, however, much of the objectionable language was pulled out of the bill through a series of amendments and changes in committees.

Ryan Rossi, the Director of the South Florida Water Coalition, told WQCS Public Media on the Treasure Coast that he is pleased with the outcome.

“Well I think that the passage of 2508 is a great thing for south Florida communities. There are cities like West Palm Beach that rely heavily on water supply from Lake Okeechobee, it’s one of the primary backup resources," he said. "So this bill ensures that the city of West Palm, in the event that we get a drought, at least knows that they have some assurance that they’re going to get the water that they need.”

Gil Smart, the policy director for Friends of the Everglades is not so pleased. While acknowledging changes have gotten rid of the worst elements, he still believes it’s a bad bill.

"It creates a pathway for modernizing water shortage rules as they currently exist," said Smart. "So it’s better in that respect, but we still got a lot of questions. The base line is why politicians in Tallahassee are meddling in south Florida water management water shortage rules?”

Rossi says he too is concerned about the environmental impacts of the measure but he believes it provides a balance to the water needs of all.

“We want to make sure that there is a degree of equity on how water is distributed. Certainly, the Everglades needs it. Certainly, our coastal communities need it. There are others that need it. " Rossi said. “We just want to make sure that everybody gets the water that they need.”

Smart said the bill still preserves unfair water rights for Big Sugar.

“This was an attempt by Big Sugar and their backers in the legislature to ensure that they got to keep their privileges. And to a large extent, they will," Smart said. "The new language in the bill provides a means by which the Legislature and the Governor might revisit these rules. But will they do so?

“Bottom line, the bill is still bad news," Smart said. “But it could have been far worse.”

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.