Florida legislators, some of whom got helicopter rides and hefty donations to their political action committees, approved millions of taxpayer dollars for a water-farming project that critics compared to corporate welfare.
Now Gov. Rick Scott has wiped it out with the stroke of his pen.
Last week, Scott vetoed a $4.5 million water-farming appropriation in this year's budget. He did so, according to his veto letter, because "water storage projects are more appropriately supported" by the state's five water management districts — not by the taxpayers of the entire state.
When the South Florida Water Management District first launched its water-farming project in 2005, it used money from the taxpayers of its own 16-county area. The project paid ranchers to hold back excess rainwater from filling up Lake Okeechobee, which is surrounded by an unstable dike. When the lake gets too full, the excess is dumped into estuaries on each side of the state, causing algae blooms and fish kills that hurt the economy.
The agency sees water farming — sometimes known as "dispersed water" — as a way to create a series of "reservoirs" without the expense of building anything permanent. Water farming is also considered a better alternative than buying U.S. Sugar land south of the lake to create a flow-way that mimics the way the Everglades' original River of Grass ran through South Florida, since the sugar giant doesn't want to sell.
However, an audit last year by the water district's inspector general found that paying the ranchers and farmers for water farming costs the taxpayers far more than holding that water on public land. As for helping with Lake Okeechobee's high water levels, scientists say water farming stores just a fraction of the water that's needed to be effective.
Originally, the water-farming project was designed to help small, mom-and-pop farming operations stay in business. But last year, the water district was set to award a $120 million, 11-year water-farming contract to Alico, one of the state's largest agriculture corporations.
Just then, though, the money ran out. The only alternative: ask the Legislature to pay for it using money from all taxpayers. So Alico went to bat for the program with state legislators in 2014, taking legislative leaders on four-hour helicopter rides around Lake Okeechobee and then donating thousands of dollars to their political action committees. The legislators responded by handing over $13 million, enough to launch the Alico contract and keep the program going another year. Further lobbying this year led to the $4.5 million that would continue to keep it afloat — until the governor's veto quashed that appropriation.
The South Florida Water Management District is reviewing its options, spokesman Randy Smith said.
"The veto item does not identify specific projects but will require the district to review all dispersed water and water-farming projects that are dependent on state funding and determine how to move forward," Smith said.
So far, the water district's board has rejected buying the U.S. Sugar property, despite strong encouragement from environmental advocates who see it as a way to spend money raised through Amendment 1.
Meanwhile, Alico, which has already started its water-farming project, "will continue to advocate for dispersed water storage projects," its CEO, Clay Wilson, said in a statement after the veto.
A spokeswoman for Scott did not respond to a question about whether news reports on Alico's water-farming lobbying persuaded him to veto the money. Alico has contributed $229,500 to Scott's fundraising committee since 2013.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.