The Sugar Empire Strikes Back With Spin

I’d written some earlier pieces summarizing the discussions about Everglades water budgets and Lake Okeechobee pollution that were the main topics at the annual Everglades Coalition conference last month in Fort Myers.

Predictably, the chairman of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board and the public affairs director for U.S. Sugar submitted responses after my columns ran in The Ledger and were picked up by environmental news aggregators and circulated statewide. I made some of the same points in earlier blog posts in this space.

I’d like to go over those responses because they get to the heart of the differences between environmentalists and the agency SFWMD has become under the Rick Scott administration and the sugar industry’s fairly consistent position over the years.

First, some quick background for the benefit of those of you who may be new to the issue.

All of the Everglades’ problems are manmade.

They are the result of political decisions made decades ago to dig a massive network of canals to drain former swampland for agricultural development initially and residential development later.

To appreciate the vastness of the marshes, you’d almost have to look at maps of Florida drawn in the 19th century or earlier. I have seen maps that don’t even include Lake Okeechobee, perhaps because explorers didn’t realize there was a lake on the other side of what seemed an endless marsh. Even today you cannot see the lake from some sections of the Hoover dike because of the immense marshes that still surround it.

My first view about 35 years ago of a map of the network of canals in South Florida left me stunned.

This canal system, which included the creation of direct connections between Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie Inlet and the Caloosahatchee River, was constructed despite warnings of respected scientists as long ago as the 1920s and 1930s that they were a bad idea environmentally in the long run.

The eminent botanist John Kunkel Small published a book titled From Eden to Sahara: Florida’s Tragedy in 1929 explaining the potential perils. The book was republished in 2004 by the Seminole Soil and Water Conservation District to re-emphasize his points.

The overdrainage of the Everglades was compounded by the construction of Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley, which acted as dams to prevent what water hadn’t already been drained to the Atlantic Ocean from reaching Everglades National Park and Florida Bay in sufficient quantities.

In addition, for at least 30 years farmers were allowed to not only use Lake Okeechobee as a source of irrigation water, but were also allowed to pump excess water loaded with fertilizer and pesticides back into the lake. Environmental groups had to file a federal lawsuit to end the practice through a 2014 ruling.

The goal of the current Everglades project is to undo some of the past environmental destruction.

The current fight is over how best to accomplish that goal.

One dispute is the restoration of historic flow south from Lake Okeechobee to the rest of the Everglades. SFWMD recently made of big deal of a project to send some additional water to Florida Bay, but when pressed by journalists acknowledged the amount was minimal in comparison with what’s needed.

Another dispute is over funding. A few years ago the SFWMD Governing Board actually proposed raising their tax rate slightly—their tax rate is capped at one-tenth of what cities and counties can levy—so they could raise enough money to get more done more quickly. Gov. Scott went ballistic and engineered the firing Black Guillory the agency’s then executive director, for fiscal heresy. Scott considers raising taxes a sin, regardless of whether the life of Mother Earth is at risk.

As a result of ant-tax hysteria, bureaucratic intransigence and politics, some people have estimated it could take another 100 years to implement the Everglades plan at the rate things are going now.

Meanwhile, the anti-environmental crowd has launched misinformation campaigns or campaigns of misdirection to attempt to cloud the issue.

Yes, the Everglades was drained to promote agriculture, but sugar didn’t become dominant until after Castro took power in Cuba and the Cuban sugar plantation owners fled to Florida to start over. Their expansion was aided by Cold War-inspired federal price supports that still exist and permissive environmental and labor rules.

That brings us to best management practices. Although SFWMD officials are eager to point out that all farmers around Lake Okeechobee are required to follow them and that it has resulted in pollution reductions, they skip over the part about this not being a true regulatory program in the way other industries are regulated. This is basically a version of Lets Make A Deal. That deal is subject to renegotiation, the latest example is the water bill the Florida Legislature passed a couple of years that gives the Everglades farmers another 20 years to reach their pollution goals.

Perhaps the most confusing issue is how the environmentalists` Everglades restoration relates to the disastrous algae blooms that struck the estuaries downstream from Lake Okeechobee last summer.

The standard line from the anti-environment crowd is that the effort to store and treat water south of Lake Okeechobee to make sure the Everglades gets the water it needs is really just an attempt to help well-to-do coastal residents at the expense of regular working folks in the Heartland.

The algae bloom was caused by the polluted water in Lake Okeechobee that is the result of a variety of factors that include historic backpumping from sugar farms, unfiltered pollution flowing from as far north as Orlando down the Kissimmee River (which was also turned into a ditch at the behest of the agriculture industry and is costing the taxpayers $1 billion to partially fix) and urban pollution from coastal development that includes discharges from septic tanks, sewer plants and stormwater pipes.

Restoring historic water flow to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay and fixing the problems in the Indian River Lagoon, which stretches north of Volusia County, are entirely separate issues.

Don’t fall for the spin.

Polk Conservation District Still Organizing; Funding Uncertain

The newly revived Polk Soil and Water Conservation District is still getting organized, but the County Commission has already jumped in and told the agency not to expect any financial support from them.

The decision was led by Commissioner George Lindsey, chairman of the Polk Regional Water Cooperative’s board, who last month asked for the topic to be brought to Friday’s agenda study session.

Polk commissioners in recent years have been trying to cut back on funding requests from outside agencies.

The district hasn’t asked the commission for money, but did tell a county official it was hoping to use some space at the Polk County Extension Office for an office and some secretarial support, but that request hasn’t come to the commission.

It seems the entire discussion is premature until the district board decides what its role will be.

According to The Ledger, commissioners wondered whether the agency would add anything to existing efforts by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and other public and private groups.

In neighboring Hillsborough County, which has an active conservation district with a $486,000 budget and an executive director, the mission includes environmental education, litter cleanup and other projects. Its income comes from state funding and fees for services. Under state law, the districts have no taxing power and board members receive no pay.

I was looking for more information, but as luck would have it, the Hillsborough district is in between websites.

I have talked to members of soil and water conservation boards elsewhere in Florida and learned the board can launch any conservation program that they think will interest the public. Running for the board is also a cheap way to get into politics as a stepping stone for higher office.

It seems like another voice to promote conservation in Polk County would be welcome.

The board’s next meeting is at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation District office, 1700 U.S. 17 South, Bartow.

Panther Point Trail Officially Opens; More Trails Coming

Polk’s trail network is expanding again.

The first phase of the Panther Point Trail along the eastern shore of Lake Hancock is now officially open.

The five-mile section runs from the edge of the Marshall Hampton Reserve south to a point near the southern edge of Lake Hancock.

The ultimate design, which will be an 8.7-mile trail that will link to the Fort Fraser Trail along U.S. 98 on the north side of Bartow, will have to wait completion of the construction of the new boat ramp on Saddle Creek near the water control structure.

The construction timeline is still up in the air, pending a series of permits involving everything from wetlands mitigation to getting access to for a driveway on U.S. 98.

The trail has no facilities, so take water and snacks you think you’ll need.

I hiked the trail earlier this week. It’s scenic and offers a lot of wildlife-viewing opportunities, but if you want to hike up and back, plan to spend a good part of the day, less if you bicycle.

Also, another new trail will open later this month at The Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve east of Lake Wales. The formal dedication will be at 10 a.m. Feb. 17 at the Wakeford Road trailhead off Walkinwater Road.

The 2.5-mile trail is advertised as providing a great view of the creek from dune bluffs.

Also, don’t forget the presentation on trail plans for Polk at the next meeting Feb. 9 at Circle B.

Which Florida Is Scott’s Budget Fighting For?

Gov. Rick Scott’s budget slogan this year is that his spending proposals demonstrate he is “Fighting for Florida’s Future.”

The answer on which future he’s describing is mixed.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection sent a press release listing $688.2 million in environmental projects as part of this theme.

Everglades restoration was the biggest category, making up 32.7 percent of the funds, plus an additional 8.7 percent for restoration work in the Indian River Lagoon and Caloosahatchee River to improve sewer treatment, reduce septic tank pollution and dredge nutrient-rich muck from waterways. Also, the 8 percent of the budget set aside for land acquisition includes a significant amount for land purchases north of Lake Okeechobee to reduce pollution flows. There is nothing in the proposed budget to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee to move more fresh water to the Everglades. Where Amendment 1 money plays into this work wasn’t immediately obvious.

Another large chunk totaling 30 percent of the project budget list is for economic development projects to fix beach erosion along the Atlantic coast to make beaches more accessible and developable, sea level rise or no sea level rise, and to fund projects to come up with “alternative water” projects to provide water for future development in the nation’s second-most populous state in recognition of the consensus that aquifer withdrawals have reached their sustainable capacity.

State park improvements make up 7.3 percent of the total and springs protection make up 9.4 percent.

DEP’s total budget is the only state environmental agency whose budget is proposed to increase.

The proposed budgets for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Forest Service show decreases.

So far all I’ve seen is general outlines, but more details will be available as the Florida Legislature begins reviewing the budget and offering its own recommendations after the 2017 session begins next month.

 

 

Will You Need A License For Your Kayak?

State officials are holding a series of meetings to discuss the idea of charging licenses for non-motorized watercraft in the same way that motorized craft are assessed.

The idea is being discussed by a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panel called the Non-Motorized Boats Working Group. Its next meeting will be Feb. 1 and 2 at DoubleTree by Hilton Orlando at SeaWorld, 10100 International Drive , Orlando.

For details on the agenda, go to http://myfwc.com/boating/advisory-council/nmbwg/meetings/ .

According to the Orlando Sentinel, the proposal has brought pushback from paddlers who question how the money from the licenses proceeds would be used to benefit them. They argue they don’t require the hard infrastructure that motorized craft require.

The current boat registration fees are $10.25 for boats 12 feet long and less and $33.50 for craft between 12 and 16 feet long.

 

Lake Smart variance draws questions

If you drive Lucerne Park Road often and wondered why land had been cleared at the edge of Lake Smart just east of the Lake Point Landing subdivision, the answer may disturb you. This is the site of a new two-story home served by a septic tank, a permit for which reportedly has already been approved.

The house will also be located slightly closer to the lake than city regulations normally allow thanks to approval of a construction setback variance at a public hearing in November.

The owner sought the variance to avoid having to build a triangular-shaped house, according to city officials.

The lot is lower than the road, so it will be interesting to see how the .82-acre site is engineered and how much fill will be required to prevent flooding. The building code requires the first floor and the slab for the air conditioner to be above the 100-year flood elevation, in which a large portion of the lot appears to lie.

Roger Griffiths with the Lake Region Lakes Management District said he is concerned that if the home is threatened with flooding, it could trigger a demand to lower the regulated level for that portion of the Winter Haven Chain, similar to what occurred on Lake Henry a few years ago. In that case, complaints about minor flooding at a golf course led to the Southwest Florida Water Management District’s decision to lower Lake Henry. That decision angered other lakefront homeowners who owned boats because it made the lake too low for navigation.

New Toll Road Will Impact Hampton Tract

The proposed western leg of the Central Polk Parkway, a toll road between U.S. 17 near Bartow Municipal Airport or thereabouts and the Polk Parkway near the county landfill will cut through the northeastern corner of the Marshall Hampton Reserve, a popular recreation site near the intersection of Thornhill Road and Winter Lake Road.

The draft map of the project lays out its tentative route. The road is still in the planning stage at this point, but funding may be forthcoming to make it happen because the Florida Department of Transportation has put a lot of emphasis on freight mobility and this is downstream from the CSX freight terminal recently rebranded as Florida’s Gateway or some such.

Watch for public meetings so you can provide your input. The names on the map are property owners along the route who will also be involved in the process.