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Florida Senate reverses plan to give sugar industry water advantage

Bill sponsor Sen. Ben Albritton said the amendment provides clarity.
Tyler Capella, a charter fishing captain from St. Petersburg, came to Tallahassee to protest a state Senate plan to advantage the sugar industry in water discharges from Lake Okeechobee, a practice he said leads to toxic algae blooms, which is devastating to his industry.
Tyler Capella, a charter fishing captain from St. Petersburg, came to Tallahassee to protest a state Senate plan to advantage the sugar industry in water discharges from Lake Okeechobee, a practice he said leads to toxic algae blooms, which is devastating to his industry. [ Mary Ellen Klas | Times/Herald ]
Published Feb. 18

TALLAHASSEE — After swarming legislators with nearly 40,000 petitions, more than 1,200 phone calls over the last two weeks and a veto threat from the governor, clean water advocates declared victory early Thursday over a bipartisan bill by Senate leaders to give the sugar industry an advantage in access to water flowing from Lake Okeechobee.

“There were rumors going around Tallahassee last night the cavalry was coming bigger than ever, and it forced their hand,” said Daniel Andrews of Captains For Clean Water at a rally Thursday morning outside the Capitol. “And what we saw was a late-filed amendment last night that took the worst of the worst out of this legislation.”

The amendment to SB 2508, approved 37-2 by the Senate on Thursday, would remove provisions in the bill that advocates say would have led to toxic discharges, more red tide blooms and dead fish on beaches.

Despite the amendment, critics said they continue to have serious questions about the pieces of the measure that restrict the flexibility of water managers as it relates to various projects, and they hope those provisions will be removed during budget discussions with the House.

The bill, sought by Senate President Wilton Simpson and approved 16-4 by the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, would have forced water managers to advocate for more water for agriculture users as a condition of receiving state funding for Everglades restoration projects.

Related: DeSantis blasts Florida Senate on Everglades bill

The bill was blasted as a “sneak attack” by members of the South Florida Water Management District, the state agency that works most closely with the federal government on Everglades restoration.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appoints the water management board, said the measure was “being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark” and hinted at a potential veto.

Water advocates argued that the measure would have put a stop to the progress made over the past three years in which water managers shifted the approach to management of Lake Okeechobee — which for decades had given preference to the sugar industry — to providing a “balanced approach” to all stakeholders.

The bill backed by Simpson, who is running for agriculture commissioner, and sponsored by Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, a citrus farmer, gave the public only one opportunity to comment on the measure and limited the ability of opponents to amend it.

District ‘blindsided’

District officials said they were “blindsided” by the measure and felt hamstrung because the Senate used a budget conforming bill as the vehicle to change funding for key water projects — building reservoirs in the Everglades Agricultural Area and the Indian River Lagoon, a wetlands project for Biscayne Bay and a seepage wall for the Everglades National Park in Miami-Dade County.

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“It’s basically holding the whole South Florida ecosystem restoration program hostage over this bill,” said Drew Bartlett, South Florida Water Management District executive director, at a meeting of the governing board last week.

If the bill were to become law, the measure would “starve the Everglades of much-needed water during the dry season and also create a higher lake stage as we reach the wet season,” warned Scott Wagner, vice-chairperson of the South Florida Water Management District.

When water levels in Lake Okeechobee are higher in the wet season, it will make the lake “more predisposed to algal blooms and toxic algae,” he said, leading to algae-laden discharges from Lake Okeechobee into tributaries to the east and west.

Wagner said the bill also would “ruin the credibility” of the district’s recommendations with its federal partner, the Army Corps of Engineers, because its funding would be dependent on recommendations that favor agriculture “even if they’re not the best recommendations.”

‘Monumental day’

Within days of learning of the bill, Captains for Clean Water mobilized an aggressive campaign to oppose it. The nonprofit coalition of Florida fishing guides was formed after the toxic algae crises that led to the Legislature’s passage of SB 10 in 2017, and works closely with boat manufacturers, chambers of commerce across the state and the Everglades Foundation.

They arrived in force at the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, where they dropped their charters for the day and pleaded with senators to reverse course. But senators accused them of being misled and for being unable to understand the statutes.

Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, on Thursday commended Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican who was vigorously lobbied by local fishing guides, for helping to craft the amendment that removed what he called “the bad stuff.”

As incoming Senate president and current Senate Rules chair, Passidomo will succeed Simpson and has increasing ability to influence Senate decisions.

Eikenberg called it a “monumental day” because the “mobilization that happened within hours of that sneak attack” shifted the momentum away from the powerful sugar industry and to the favor of the water advocates.

“The sugar industry is no longer the top priority of water from Lake Okeechobee,” he said. In the past, when the clean water advocates faced opposition from the industry, “we’d get rolled,’’ he said. “The days of getting rolled are over.”

Albritton said the amendment provides clarity, and the bill provides “accountability with the federal government on state water rights.”

He said that none of the projects “would be put in jeopardy by this bill” and he doesn’t expect it to result in harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the east and west coasts. But, he added, “Mother Nature is in charge.”

Responding to questions from Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez, R-Miami, Albritton conceded that there will be some companies that will benefit from the expedited permitting process in the bill.

They will include “large-scale wastewater plants that have regional impact” and “utility companies,” he said.

‘Power of special interests’

At the rally, Eikenberg commended the captains for their swift mobilization and pointed to the fishing boats parked on the plaza outside the Capitol, declaring them key to “the 21st-century economy in this state.”

Tyler Capella, a charter fishing captain from St. Petersburg, said the experience has made him conclude that what happens in the Capitol “is not a democratic process.”

“It really shows the power of special interests over the will of the people,” he said. “It’s all just so a couple senators up here that have gotten $100,000, $200,000 campaign contributions from the sugarcane companies will slide these bills in at the last second.”

Andrews, the executive director of Captains for Clean Water, urged the 100 fishing guides assembled in Tallahassee to remain vigilant.

“We got over three weeks of session left,” he said. “And we get surprised all the time up here. So stay engaged. It’s not over yet. Stay engaged, pay attention.”

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