Water Rally: Legislators pressed to vote for EAA land purchase
Florida legislators are being asked to do something that more than 4.2 million voters supported last year buy environmentally valuable land to help reduce pollutants and act as a flow way for Lake Okeechobee discharges.
On Saturday, environmentalists, conservationists and others gathered at Lee County Alliance of the Arts in Fort Myers for an Amendment 1 “Finish The Job” rally (one of nine held state-wide) to tell those lawmakers to do as the will of the people intended. Two days later, state senators and house representatives reconvened to discuss budgetary issues during a special session that could run until June 20. One of the agenda items to vote on during that time will focus on a decision to spend or not spend more money on a critical need to purchase additional land south of the lake for storage, treatment and conveyance of water to the Everglades as well as fund Florida Forever and protect the state’s springs.
“I don’t care what the culture of corruption is in Tallahassee. The public will will always prevail,” said Ray Judah, long-standing clean water activist and current coordinator of the Florida Coastal and Oceans Coalition.
Conservationists are urging lawmakers to pursue the acquisition of 46,800 acres of EAA sugar land under an option set to expire in October 2015 and to continue to fund a number of different projects to help water quality overall. The Monday session is a continuation of the April 28 legislative session that was terminated when House officials unexpectedly adjourned without adopting a budget.
“I and many others have experienced the sheer arrogance first hand the fact that these legislators are actually listening to their paymasters rather than to the public to do what’s right for our environment and economy,” said Judah. “If they don’t support the purchase of the land during the special session, then you will have your voice heard at the ballot box next year.”
The former Lee County Commissioner co-coordinated the rally with John “Green Guy” Scott.
“The people have spoken. Finish the job,” screamed Scott.
Other speakers included John Cassani of the Southwest Florida Watershed Council and April Freeman, who was a 2014 Democratic special election candidate who sought election to the U.S. House to represent the 19th Congressional District of Florida but was defeated by Curt Clawson in the special general election in June 2014.
“Now, we need to make sure that these representatives up in Tallahassee hear our voices loud and clear,” said Freeman. “We don’t want our voices ignored. Our voices are a chorus of our strength.”
Will Abberger, chair of Florida’s Water and Land Legacy, the sponsor committee for Amendment 1, says that while there are other lands that can be acquired in the EAA, legislators are leaning toward allocating more than $200 million of the roughly $750 Amendment 1 projected revenue funds this year toward the operating and regulatory expenses of state agencies.
“They are considering using the funds for funding the state’s agency operations for the Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Forestry, Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, etc.,” he said. “The ballot language and actually the text of the amendment specifically says to acquire lands in the Everglades agricultural area, which is where the U.S. Sugar land in question is.”
Judah calls the proposal to use funds to help with operations service costs “totally inappropriate” as part of a reconciliation in balancing the budget.
“It is unfortunate that the legislature is looking at siphoning off money that was intended to purchase environmentally sensitive land pursuant to the language of the Florida Constitutional amendment and use that money to pay for regulatory agency operations,” he said. “This is a bait-and-switch type of tactic similar to what they did to the lottery.”
The Florida Water and Land Conservation Initiative, Amendment 1 was designed to dedicate 33 percent of net revenue from the existing excise tax on documents to the Land Acquisition Trust Fund to acquire, restore, improve, and manage conservation lands including wetlands and forests; fish and wildlife habitat; lands protecting water resources and drinking water sources, including the Everglades, and the water quality of rivers, lakes, and streams; beaches and shores; outdoor recreational lands; working farms and ranches; and historic or geologic sites. The excise tax on documents would be good for 20 years.
Key legislative leaders, including Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto (who was invited to the rally but did not attend) and Sen. Joe Negron, continue to support the expenditure of billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money under the current capital improvement program of water resource projects to the west and east of Lake Okeechobee. Sen. Negron has pitched to spend $500 million of the so-called “doc stamp tax” to purchase land south of the lake.
On May 14, the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board voted to terminate the option to buy land from U.S. Sugar Corp. Five years ago, “Big Sugar” agreed via a binding, signed contract to sell 46,800 acres of its land -26,000 of which is directly south of Lake O. Some EAA land could be used as water storage, to allow it to be cleaned of pollutants then flowed south from the lake via Plan 6 to the “river of grass” as it once did. Board members called the issue “complicated” and that the potential purchase would involve a “complex appraisal” process.
“The Charlie Crist administration actually went through a bond-validation process to justify the expenditure of state money to buy the land,” Judah said. “We are talking about agricultural land, not infrastructure, buildings or refineries. There is nothing complicated about that at all.”
Judah said some Florida legislative officials and at least one SFWMD board member has a “cozy relationship” with U.S. Sugar and has paid for hunting trips to Texas.
“There is an unholy alliance amongst numerous members of the legislature, U.S. Sugar and King Ranch,” he said.
Reports say State and House legislators are proposing just a fraction of the $750 million for land acquisition. Besides the proposed agency operational cost funds, Judah believes the remaining monies could potentially be used for agricultural projects, water distribution systems, water pumps, reservoirs and water storage as well as to protect state springs. The need is to fund Florida Forever, the state’s premier conservation and recreation lands acquisition program.
“It is totally unacceptable for Senate and House officials to redirect Amendment 1 monies for other purposes, but they steadfastly rejected the very intent of the voters to spend that money on the environmentally sensitive lands, particularly lands that can help restore the Everglades,” said Judah. “It is much more expensive to be leasing and storing water through these temporary storage agreements with farmers than it would be to just go ahead and buy the land and set up the appropriate infrastructure and allow it to be filtered and restored through the Everglades.”
While Amendment 1 passed by an overwhelming 75 percent, Lee County voters supported the passing of it by a 78 percent mark, one of the strongest county backers in the state. A flow way to the south would stop harmful freshwater releases from Lake O into both the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, the latter which has been said to be killing the local estuary.
“The public support is strong. I think it is very clear that the voters knew what they were voting on when they voted on Amendment 1,” said Abberger.