The battle to save Florida’s natural treasure.
When I fly home to Ft. Lauderdale International Airport, I always look out the window. The view is spectacularly beautiful and mechanistically awe-inspiring. Vast fields of marshes, swamps, and saw grass stretch out past the horizon’s end, accompanied by a harsh grid of concrete canals that scar the Everglades, the 60-mile wide wetlands that flows through the southern portion of Florida. The canals were put in place in 1948 when Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest body of water, overflowed after a series of destructive hurricanes and killed thousands of people. The plan to contain the great lake, called The Central and Southern Florida Project, successfully diverted flood water away from domestic real estate markets and mitigated the destructive effects of hurricanes on the region. Unfortunately, the environmental impact of the project was not the highest consideration at the time.
Human alterations of the area have left the Everglades almost unrecognizable. Water that would have naturally flooded the wilderness is diverted off to the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west. Remaining water is polluted by run-off from residential and agricultural fertilizer and other pollution that leads to algae blooms and extremely high levels of phosphorous and nitrogen.
Nevertheless, the canals provide for the soil that sweetens much of the United States. Besides oranges, grapefruit, and other staples, South Florida produces half of America’s annual sugarcane crop, grown right in the middle of the Everglades. As global warming, water pollution, fertilizer runoff, and saltwater intrusion slowly degrade the national treasure that is the Everglades ecosystem, Florida is left to weigh the value of sugar production.
In 2000, Bill Clinton and Congress tried to answer it with the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which pledged federal dollars to invest in the health of the Everglades by diverting water back into the ecosystem and focusing on wildlife protection. Despite a series of setbacks and engineering difficulties, the initiative has funded local restoration and infrastructure projects and is gradually restoring water flow.
Then-governor Charlie Crist announced one of the most ambitious plans to date while governor in 2008. He proposed purchasing United States Sugar, one of the nation’s largest sugar corporations, and re-integrating its vast sugarcane fields back into the Everglades ecosystem. The governor drew plenty of criticism for the deal. The land was overpriced and even a spokesperson for USS acknowledged the “very active” relationship between the sugar industry and government negotiators. Still, the state and United States Sugar soon reached an agreement to purchase more than 180,000 acres of land for $1.37 billion. It was a win for environmentalists, who had long cherished the valuable land upon which the farms sat, and it was a win for the farmers themselves as drought and water restrictions had put USS in serious debt.
But as the full force of the recession hit, Florida, with a massive real-estate market and a huge foreclosure crisis, was an economic ground zero. The ambitious land-grab was soon viewed as too aggressive, costly, and inappropriate in such an austere time. In May 2009, a new deal was arranged through which 73,000 acres of land would be bought for $536 million, with the option to purchase the rest later. As the recession continued, the project was downsized again in August 2010 with $197 million for 26,800 acres.
Environmentalists were hesitant to criticize the new deal, worried of either party withdrawing altogether. United States Sugar felt slighted after expecting a much larger sale than reality afforded. Charlie Crist finished his governorship and ran for the Senate seat that would eventually become Marco Rubio’s. The deal concluded, not with a continuous path for the Everglades to flow through South Florida, but with two isolated, small pieces of land, parts of which were wholly unfit for restoration or water treatment.
In hindsight, many preservationists fault the state’s negotiators for not steeling themselves, insisting on lower prices, and sticking to the full acreage amount. According to Judy Sanchez, Senior Director of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs for US Sugar, “current economic conditions make [it] highly unlikely” that any more of the original 187,000 acre offer will be purchased by the state.
The need for the restoration of the Everglades is as urgent as ever. The water is no less polluted and the animals no less endangered than they ever were before (White-Tailed Deer sightings are down an incredible 94 percent). More than anything, water quality is the most troubling issue. Storm water treatment centers, large above-ground reservoirs used to purify water from the Everglades, do not have the capacity to process all of the fertilizer-polluted water. Some, including Peg McPherson, Executive Director at the Legacy Institute for Nature and Culture, believe that water purification should be a priority for the future, “I’m very, very hopeful for the day when we can ask farmers to use their property for restoring and treating water,” McPherson told the HPR. “The original idea was that we were going to get that land and use it for storm water treatment areas, and for other uses that we couldn’t do while it was in US Sugar’s hands… The deal that finally came through with US Sugar isn’t necessarily the deal we thought we were going to get.”
In the past few months, Rick Scott, Florida’s penny-pinching governor, has shown some favor to the Everglades preservation movement, pledging $40 million to restoration work. It is a start, but more must be done in the areas of land reclamation, water quality improvement, and environmental standards.
Florida lost big in the recession. The state missed its chance to make a big impact when prices were low, but it should not give up the fight. The Everglades touch almost every aspect of the Florida economy including property values, water purification prices, and the tourism industry. The environmental significance and natural beauty of the Everglades are unparalleled.
This goes beyond agriculture, however powerful those forces may be. The state of Florida must get behind the fight to save the Everglades.