1. Opinion

Column: Adam Putnam's selective environmental concerns

Agriculture Commissioner  Putnam opposes a plan for a reservoir.
Agriculture Commissioner Putnam opposes a plan for a reservoir.
Published Feb. 7, 2017

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam seems quite selective when it comes to his concerns — suspiciously so.

Surprising? No.

Disappointing? Absolutely.

At last week's Associated Press legislative planning session in Tallahassee, Putnam talked to the media about citrus greening, pythons in the Everglades, screwworms, the mosquito-borne Zika virus and the Giant African Land Snail.

The toxic blue-green algae that has ravaged both of Florida's coasts in two of the last three years? The putrid, disgusting goo that has sickened children, closed businesses, killed fish and wildlife and forced people along the waterways to abandon their homes?

Not so much.

On Zika, Putnam stands firm: "A state that had 105 million visitors last year can't tolerate a widespread epidemic of a disease that would keep families away."

Yet when it comes to an algae outbreak that forced Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency that lasted 225 days in 2016, closing beaches and restricting fishing, the agriculture commissioner was mute.

The mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus, he noted, could well come back. Putnam was oblivious, however, to the likely recurrence of the blue-green algae, a toxic bacteria that takes hold whenever water levels in Lake Okeechobee force the U.S. Army Corps to flush the filthy excess into our coastal waterways and estuaries as a flood control measure.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is right about Putnam's opposition: "If there was ooze and poisonous fluids flowing down the center of Bartow and Polk County (Putnam's hometown), we wouldn't be talking about an abstract schedule or making comments that somehow this is a political effort."

For decades, there has been broad scientific consensus on the solution to the algae crisis: Increase water storage south of Lake Okeechobee, so the stored water can be cleansed and put to use, saving a dehydrated Everglades and collapsing Florida Bay.

Putnam is having none of it. He apparently knows better than the hundreds of scientists who have long advocated a reservoir south of the lake despite the commissioner's suggestion that the proposal is out of left field.

"You put all these engineers in a room, you put all these federal and state partners in a room," he proclaimed, and "they come up with these big plans and they only seem to last until the next election, when somebody else wants to airdrop in a new boxcar load of cash for the latest new shiny object solution."

Forget the reservoir, says Putnam. "I was opposed to it the first time under Gov. (Charlie) Crist, and I still am."

The real culprit, Putnam believes, are broken septic systems — with a healthy dollop of good old-fashioned Florida regionalism on the side.

"Nobody has been more focused on getting water policy right than for the state than I have," he asserted. "For the whole state, not just the part that is south of Lake Okeechobee."

Call me cynical, but I can't help thinking that the commissioner might be influenced by more than a quarter-million dollars that the sugar giants, Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar Corp., have poured into his "Florida Grown" political committee in just the last 20 months. It might be a mere coincidence that these two sugar companies happen to own much of the land in question (at enormous profits), but I think not.

One reporter asked Putnam if he would ever take a position against the sugar companies. His answer: "I was opposed to it (buying U.S. Sugar land) the first iteration of the buyout, which is not the position they held, so I would say I already have a track record."

When he was reminded that, back then, Florida Crystals shared his opposition to the buyout (unlike U.S. Sugar, which had contracted to sell all their holdings), Putnam gave what might have been the most telling response of his career.

"You didn't qualify that. When there's division amongst them, I gotta pick."

Kimberly Mitchell is executive director of the Everglades Trust and a former West Palm Beach city commissioner.


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