Sugar's decades-long hold over Florida Everglades came with a price

Adams Ranch, a candidate for protection within the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area.  (CARLTON WARD JR. / | Special to the Times)
Adams Ranch, a candidate for protection within the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. (CARLTON WARD JR. / | Special to the Times)
Published July 15, 2016


Fifteen years after Jeb Bush and Bill Clinton reached a landmark accord to revive the Everglades, billions of dollars have been spent but not much marsh has been restored, and the River of Grass continues to cycle through the same familiar struggles.

Disastrous algae blooms foul coastal estuaries. Seagrass die-offs plague Florida Bay. High water threatens the Lake Okeechobee dike. Everglades marshes drown under too much water or wither under too little. All the ecological crises of this summer are just déjà vu, all over again.

But a review of the key decision points by Florida policymakers over the last two decades shows that one key player in the fate of the Everglades has grown healthier and stronger: Big Sugar.

The industry, one of the largest producers of phosphorus-laden pollutants in the Glades, has rung up a string of political successes while recording bumper harvests in recent years. That influence has not come cheaply.

Between 1994 and 2016, a review of state Division of Elections records by the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau shows, the sugar industry — led by United States Sugar and Florida Crystals — has steered a whopping $57.8 million in direct and in-kind contributions to state and local political campaigns. (The total does not include federal contributions.)

It appears to be money well spent. On issue after issue, regulators, legislators and governors have erred on the side of softening the impact of adverse rules and regulations on cane growers and other powerful and polluting agriculture interests, including cattle operations north of Lake Okeechobee.

The sugar industry beat back a voter-approved amendment that would have forced it to pay for cleaning up its own nutrient-rich runoff into the Everglades, instead shifting much of the cost to taxpayers. It won repeated delays of strict water quality standards. It has fended off calls for buyouts — even after one of the largest companies, U.S. Sugar, offered to sell itself to the state. And it has undermined attempts to use a second constitutional amendment, Amendment 1, to buy farmland for Everglades cleanup.

"I can tell you, first hand, that the industry is directly involved with every decision this Legislature makes," said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation that for decades has fought the sugar industry over the Everglades. He was a chief of staff to former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Florida's decisionmakers "always err on the side of agriculture," Eikenberg said.

But for the legislators who defend sugar and other farmers, "it's all a matter of perspective," said Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres.

The 35-year-old three-term lawmaker was in middle school when the Everglades Florida Act was passed in 1994, but he has made his mark as a champion for agricultural interests. He helped pass a sweeping water policy bill in the first week of the 2016 legislative session that eased restrictions on polluters. He said that residential development is as much to blame for the phosphorus-laden runoff into the Everglades as the sugar industry.

"Since 1947, the farmland has been urbanized, and 3 million people live west of I-95 on what used to be sawgrass," he said. "If all sawgrass is equal, the homeowner in Hialeah should have as much chance of his land being condemned for Everglades cleanup as the farmer does. But the farmer lives under the fear that will only happen to him."

Caldwell was among the many well-positioned state leaders, from legislators to Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who have been the guest of U.S. Sugar at the company property on King Ranch in Texas, one of North America's premier hunting grounds. He doesn't dispute the sugar industry's clout but says it is justified.

"The sugar industry has been involved in stakeholder politics, but it's equally true their opponents have been myopically focused on the industry's demise," he said. Indeed, the Everglades Trust, the West Palm Beach nonprofit aimed at protecting the Everglades, has called for an end to government subsidies for the sugar industry.

In the last 20 years, the political climate has worked to benefit sugar. In 1998, the state's already-powerful sugar industry was capitalizing on loosening campaign finance laws and the growing Republican clout in Tallahassee.

Between 1994 and 2016, U.S. Sugar, the Clewiston company controlled by the Flint, Mich.-based Charles Stewart Mott and the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, contributed the most: $33.3 million. Florida Crystals, owned by the Palm Beach-based Fanjul family, and its affiliates were next with $12.4 million over the same time.

A pivotal moment came in the 1998-99 election cycle, when Big Sugar, which had long been a contributor to Florida Democrats, became one of the largest benefactors of the Republican Party of Florida.

The RPOF was completing its takeover of the state Legislature. Jeb Bush was the party's nominee for governor. The sugar industry bankrolled the party with checks totaling more than $9.7 million — a stunning amount in an era before super PACs and unlimited contributions were commonplace.

Decision point: 'Polluter pays'

The industry was still reeling from the passage of the 1996 "polluter pays" amendment to the state Constitution, in which 68 percent of Florida's voters supported requiring the industries contributing to Everglades pollution to be "primarily responsible" for paying their share of the damage.

Sugar had steered $19.4 million to a group that unsuccessfully attempted to defeat the plan, Citizens to Save Jobs & Stop Unfair Taxes, state records show.

While the amendment passed overwhelmingly, there was one problem: It was not self-executing, and the 1997 Legislature refused to implement it.

Then-Gov. Lawton Chiles asked the Florida Supreme Court for an advisory opinion on whether the law could take effect "without the aid of legislative enactment," but the court ruled that it couldn't.

It took the Legislature seven years to implement "polluter pays," but it found a way to effectively neuter it in 2003. Lawmakers capped the 1994 Everglades Agricultural Privilege Tax that was imposed on sugarcane growers at $25 per acre, or $11.3 million a year, and declared that it satisfied the constitutional requirement.

By 2012, a study by the Everglades Foundation found that 76 percent of the phosphorus entering the Everglades Agricultural Area came from the agricultural lands south of Lake Okeechobee, but through the agriculture tax and phosphorus-reduction programs they have financed, the industry has paid only 24 percent of their share of the cleanup costs — about $200 million.

Decision point: Water standards

For the last three decades, every governor has had his Everglades moment. For Jeb Bush it came the same December day in 2000 that the U.S. Supreme Court was deciding Bush vs. Gore. He stood at the White House with an assembly of Republicans and Democrats and agreed to a federal cleanup known as the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

The 30-year plan was essentially a big water storage project aimed at advancing the goals of the 1994 Everglades Forever Act by using of thousands of acres of sugar land to store and clean polluted water from Lake Okeechobee in storm water treatment areas. The plan also created a regulatory program that would require farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area to implement best management practices to reduce nutrient waste. The state and federal governments would share the cost of the program, estimated at $13.5 billion.

If all went as planned, the project would be well underway by 2016, relieving the phosphorous load on Lake Okeechobee. It did not go as planned.

In 2001, the state agreed to goals set by the Everglades Forever Act, reducing phosphorus in water to natural levels — 10 parts per billion — or face federal sanctions. But by 2003, regulators determined the water quality in Lake Okeechobee wasn't going to meet the standard so they recommended pushing back the deadlines.

Late in the 2003 legislative session, leading lawmakers developed a bill to establish a new deadline: 2026. The sugar industry's donations for the 2002-03 cycle: $673,320, including $286,831 to the Republican Party of Florida.

By all accounts, the industry has since worked hard to reduce the phosphorous levels from its farms, especially since 2009 when it ceased routine back pumping of nutrient-laden water into the lake. According to a 2015 report by the South Florida Water Management District, 37 percent of the phosphorous comes from cattle ranches, citrus groves and suburbs to the north that drains into the Kissimmee River, while only 5.8 percent comes from the sugar fields.

"What the environmental activists won't tell you is that today, 90 percent of the water in the Everglades is meeting highly stringent federal water quality standards of 10 parts per billion," said Malcolm "Bubba" Wade Jr., senior vice president of corporate strategy and business development for U.S. Sugar. "Farmers have invested $400 million in cleaning the water heading south to the Everglades, and have reduced phosphorus through best management practices by an annual average of 56 percent over the last two decades."

Decision point: Buying sugar land

On June 24, 2008, on the cusp of the onset of the Great Recession, U.S. Sugar made a stunning admission intended to turbocharge Everglades cleanup efforts: It would suspend all sugar operations, sell its 187,000 acres of agricultural land to the state and the land could be used for the long-sought effort to restore the historic connection between Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay while also safeguarding the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers and estuaries.

The timing was important. Sugar prices were in decline and the sellout price was a staggering $1.34 billion.

But as the recession wracked Florida's finances, and U.S. Sugar's chief rival, Florida Crystals, fought the plan, the state balked at the price. By May 2009, the governing board of the South Florida Water Management District approved a revised proposal to acquire only 73,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area but retain an option to buy another 46,500 acres in 2015.

The state bought only 27,000 acres and by May 2015 sugar prices had risen and the land was producing record profits for Florida's cane growers. Under pressure from U.S. Sugar, Gov. Scott and the SFWMD board rejected the option to buy the land south of Lake Okeechobee for clean-up.

Contributions from sugar to Scott's Let's Get to Work political committee by that point were $1 million.

Decision point: Amendment 1

Environmentalists mounted one final effort to force the Legislature to buy land for Everglades cleanup. In 2014, Florida voters approved Amendment 1, the Water and Land Conservation Amendment, by 75 percent of the vote, requiring that more than $700 million a year to pay for land acquisition to "restore, improve and manage conservation lands ... including the Everglades."

But the Legislature refused to use any Amendment 1 money for land acquisition, including the purchase of sugar land to restore the water flow to the south of Lake O. In 2016, lawmakers passed the Legacy Florida Act, which dedicates up to $200 million a year from Amendment 1 to finance Everglades cleanup projects, though not necessarily land acquisition.

Decision point: Budget cuts, revenue streams

Finally, the sugar industry has persuaded legislators to allow it to rely on "best management practices," industry-set water quality and land management standards that are often not subjected to state verification and monitoring. Cuts to district budgets, imposed by Scott's cap on property tax collections at water management districts, reduced industry oversight.

At the SFWMD, budget and staff were cut by more than $140 million — 30 percent — further delaying monitoring, oversight and development of Everglades cleanup. The district was forced to spend down its reserve funds, further reducing the likelihood it will have the money to buy agriculture land for restoration efforts.

By 2013, with the economy rebounding, Scott and the Legislature approved a $880 million water pollution cleanup plan known as "restorations strategies." The measure capped the Agriculture Privilege Tax for another 10 years and required that $32 million in cleanup funds come from SFWMD reserves. As property values rose another $21 million in 2015, former head of SFWMD Blake Guillory proposed the practice of cutting back taxes and suggested leaving the tax rate alone to keep the district from dipping into reserves. Scott was not happy.

Within two weeks, the board of governors reversed the decision and Guillory was forced to resign, to be replaced by Scott's general counsel.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas.