Answer to one community’s toxic algae is economic distress for another
Rochelle Neumann held back tears up as she told a Senate committee how her family rebuilt their paddle board company in Stuart four years ago only to have it closed for good when toxic algae plumes returned last year and poisoned the coast for months.
"My business dropped by 50 percent by February and by June we were closed, permanently, in Stuart,'' she said. "We lost more than $100,000 last year due to Lake Okeechobee discharges,."
Neumann was among dozens of residents and business owners who came to testify Wednesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Natural Resources which is drafting a $2.4 billion plan to use tax money to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee to bring fresh water to South Florida and avoid another toxic algae summer.
"The great physical, emotional and financial strain of living through this devastating disaster has affected not only our family but our community, tourism and the wildlife,'' said Neumann.
Senate President Joe Negron, a Republican whose Stuart-based district was among the communities hardest hit by the toxic algae plumes last year, has proposed bonding $60 million of Land Acquisition Trust Fund money approved by voters in 2014 to pay for the land acquisition and construction costs. The idea is to fast-track a project originally proposed in 2000 under the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), a 35-year, $10.5 billion program to clean up and restore what is left of the Everglades.
But the economic rescue Negron and his supporters see is an economic threat to residents in the agricultural communities in the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area, They told the committee that if active farm land is taken out of production to build the reservoir it will kill jobs and destroy their economy.
"If you are successful in acquiring these lands, that are currently being proposed, we will close yet another sugar mill which could be detrimental to the economic impact in the Glades area and the people that reside there." said Tammy Jackson-Moore, representing Guardians of the Glades an organization representing Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay, the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area.
Jackson-Moore is a former deputy city manager of Pahokee and former employee of the South Florida Water Management district, which also opposes the Negron plan. She noted that in the last 20 years the area has given up more than 100,000 acres of active farm land "in the name of Everglades restoration and, in doing so, we've closed down three sugar mills." One sugar mill employs 600 people, she said.
Although Negron initially identified two parcels as possible land for purchase, he told the Herald/Times in December that he is flexible on which parcels of land to buy and is not prepared to exercise the state’s eminent domain powers to condemn land for purchase.
"If we are going to explore purchasing agricultural land, we should look for land that is not in maximum agriculture production," he said. "All land is not the same south of Lake Okeechobee, some land is very productive and other land is less productive."
Guy Calvert, the pastor of the Jensen Beach Christian Church, told the Senate committee that his church has been baptizing people in the Indian River lagoon for 105 years and last year the algae prevented them from being able to use the river.
"Before Pahokee was a town, we were baptizing in that river,'' he said.. "This algae growth is effectively killing our community, taking our jobs."
He said that elderly residents are "stuck in the house in the summer months" for fear of breathing the toxic blooms. Children on local playgrounds all have one thing in common: "runny noses and itchy eyes," and Paramedics and emergency room personnel ask people one consistent question: "have you come in contact with toxic algae."
Calvert said the food pantry he runs "used to feed 200 people. A week after the discharges, we now feed over 500 because of people who lost their jobs in their community."
On the other coast, Daniel Andrews, 25, a Fort Myers fishing boat captain was among several who urged the committee to support the Negron plan.
"Sitting on an 18-foot boat, with a client, who is often paying upwards of $1,000 for a day of fishing is nothing short of frustrating when we are trying to fish barren sand flats that used to be covered in sea grass and oyster beds, filled with marine life,'' he said.
He said that fishing guides in South Florida "are the canaries in a coal mine and our canaries are dying... if we continue to allow our estuaries to wither away, our economies will collapse."
Neumann, the paddle board owner, said there was irony in the fact that Coastal Living magazine had arranged to do a feature on the company business last summer, highlighting the tourism and beauty of the region.
But, instead, "we had to close the week they were in town." Neumann and her husband and three children have since relocated to Manatee County and since May they have been "living entirely off of our savings."
There has been on "viable financial help from the state or federal government. It's a shame that poor decisions by state and federal government over the last 130 years have put us in this situation. You folks have the ability to change this and make it better."
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the chairman of the committee, said he appreciated "her heart felt testimony today.
“We're listening,’’ he said.
Photo: Toxic algae bloom by Miami Herald.