EAA reservoir plan draws heated debate

The public comment period at the Dec. 21 South Florida Water Management District meeting about the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir brought out emotions and some accusations. While the SFWMD meeting presented EAA reservoir alternatives that can be built on state-owned land, many in the audience were more concerned about State Sen. Joe Negron’s recent statements about obtaining more EAA land and expanding the footprint of the project.

“Ten years ago, a 25-square mile reservoir, the largest of its kind in the world, was under construction in the EAA. The environmentalists sued to stop its construction, the head of the Everglades Trust, calling it ‘not needed’ and ‘too expensive.’ This action delayed Everglades restoration for a solid decade,” said J.P. Sasser, former mayor of Pahokee. “This year Senate Bill 10 has passed with a bipartisan effort and the head of the Everglades Foundation heaped praise on what he called this ‘science-based bill and Governor Scott’s commitment to the Everglades.’ At the same time, Everglades Foundation released their paid attack dogs, Everglades Trust and BullSugar to attack the bill, the governor, SFWMD and the Army Corps of Engineers. So here we are, once again, on the verge of actually constructing a southern reservoir, and on cue, the environmentalists are trying to derail the agreed-upon process and timeline in Senate Bill 10. It’s deja-vu all over again. Before the ink was dried on SB10, they were demanding more land, revealing their true reason for existing which has nothing to do with restoration and water and everything to do with their personal vendetta against agriculture and killing our jobs for the Glades communities as collateral damage. One excuse they are using is the current planned reservoir in the EAA is too deep and they want to increase its footprint, but on their website they call the C-43 reservoir ‘critical to the success of CERP.’ The C-43 is deeper than the reservoir currently planned for the EAA. Shame on them for their hypocrisy. Shame on them for once again attempting to derail restoration, and shame on them trying to take our land and our jobs.”

Newton Cook of United Water Fowlers pointed out that currently only 6,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) can move under the Tamiami Trail. He said until conveyance south under the trail is increased, that capacity won’t change. Over past year, there were times when 30,000 cfs was coming into Lake Okeechobee from the north, he added. Without conveyance south to Florida Bay “the reservoir is going to sit there like a duck pond,” he said.

Alex Gillen of the BullSugar Alliance criticized the format for the SFWMD meeting, which held public comment to the end. He complained that he had not been allowed to ask questions during the presentation. He also complained that more information about what would be presented at the meeting had not been provided online in advance.

“It’s extremely disheartening to hear that there is talk of additional land being used to build the reservoir,” said Tammy Jackson-Moore, with Guardians of the Glades.

“People in the Glades community have always known this particular issue was really about a land grab. We haven’t been fooled, but during the legislative session, we worked really, really hard to make sure that we had a seat at the table, and we came up with a compromise, that we thought when we left, it benefited and it was pleasing to everyone that was there.

“The ink was barely dry before we heard additional conversations about taking additional land, agricultural land, where people in the Glades communities work and make their livelihood. This is all being done without being part of the process. There is a public process that has to be followed, and these conversations about taking lands are being had without the public being involved.

“We are not professional protesters … but just know that our eye is on this,” she said. “We will make certain our voices are heard because it’s about protecting our community, and that is what the Guardians are going to do.”

“I’m not here to try to compete or challenge the experts or the ones who are scholars from a scientific approach, but I will go toe-to-toe with anybody when it comes to a humanistic approach, that is understanding that people’s lives do matter,” said Steve Wilson, mayor of Belle Glade.

“When we were going back and forth to Tallahassee, we were discovering that there were communities and cities being pitted against each other. And we prayed that mankind would come up with something that we all could live by, and SB 10 came about. We didn’t all agree, but it was a compromise that we all could live and work by.” He urged SFWMD to stay the course on SB 10.

“We are not anti-Glades,” said Kimberly Mitchell, of Everglades Trust. “We are not even-anti sugar.

“We just need them to move out of the way a little bit. If we work together, there is existing land that could be swapped,” she said.

“The reason why we are here, whether it was back in 2008 when we heard ‘take the land’ and now this past year ‘flood the communities’ and ‘remove the levee,’ the job that we all have to do is very difficult,” said Mali Gardner, mayor of Clewiston. “When you hear comments of ‘take the land,’ and ‘flood their towns,’ those are incendiary comments. And when we know that there are underlying forces that do want to see agriculture taken out of the EAA, and people who do want to see our towns decimated, we are going to stand up. We are going to speak.”

She said the SFWMD has done their job in developing the alternatives for the reservoir.

“We are all taxpayers. We want to see our tax money used as efficiently as possible, which is exactly what you have done. You have followed the confines of SB 10 which had no more land taken out of production. If there was a willing seller, let them sell. That was fine. But there was not.

“We need to quit spending money and then having to stop a project. I remember 2007, all the dynamiting that was done on U.S. 27 to get the reservoir ready and then it stopped. That was a waste of taxpayer dollars. Don’t waste any more money,” said Mayor Gardner.

“Until the district is able to do what I believe is primary, and very important, address the issue of the water coming in from the north, the water quality and the water quantity, we would not be having this discussion of discharges, harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee, harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee to each of the estuaries if it wasn’t for the amount of water coming into Lake O. I love Lake Okeechobee. I can get on the water in five minutes from my house and I love going out on the lake. What I am seeing right now is the destruction of Lake Okeechobee because of too much water coming in from the north, and we’ve not addressed it.

“We’ve not held the water management district responsible for the amount of flows that are coming into our lake. I would beg, please fast-track whatever you can to address those issues of too much water coming in from the north. Lake O does not produce the water,” she said. “It is coming from the north.”

“We talk about Senator Negron’s letter (asking SFWMD to include computer models for a larger reservoir footprint),” said Janet Taylor, of Glades Lives Matter. “After I read Sen. Negron’s letter (to SFWMD Executive Director Ernie Marks), I said ‘they are coming for our land.’ Former Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers once said, ‘When they tell you it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.’ Well, when the coastal elites and radical environmentalists tell us that building a reservoir to store water south of Lake Okeechobee was not about taking our land, we knew it was about taking our land.

“The radical environmentalists and coastal elites want our land,” she said. “Here’s the proof. Just seven months ago, we all agreed; environmentalists, Glades residents, farmers, advocates on all sides and legislators, to build a water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. We all agreed on the amount of land to be used, the type of land to be used and the exact location of the land to be used.

“The legislature passed the reservoir act and SB 10 with great fanfare. Everybody got a pat on the back. Accolades and awards were handed out like candy. The governor signed the bill right here in our community. And since then, the SFWMD moved between heaven and earth to get community input and put together a plan for building this reservoir.

“Then earlier this month, all hell broke loose,” Mrs. Taylor continued. “The radical Martin County group of professional protesters and fringe environmentalists known as BullSugar began filling up inboxes and comment sections with messages that the reservoir, the one we all agreed on in May, won’t work because they need more land. Their action exposed to the rest of the state what we in the Glades have known all along: They want our land.

“Their argument, however thinly disguised, is not about water quality and quantity. The water coming off the farms in our community is much, much cleaner than what it was when it came onto the farm.

“According to SFWMD, 98 percent of the pollution that comes into Lake Okeechobee, and filters through our communities, comes from north of Lake Okeechobee and not from sources in the Glades,” said Mrs. Taylor.

“This reservoir redo is about taking our land, destroying local communities, displacing families and ruining local economies by ending farming on the most fertile soil on the face of the Earth,” she said.

“In the Glades, our farmland is precious,” said Stephanie Busin, a school board member from Hendry County. “The calls to buy out this land and put farmers out of business were an unwarranted threat.” She said what the district has done with the reservoir plans under Senate Bill 10 will ensure Hendry County youth have a future in agriculture. “I applaud the district for taking a science-based approach, for sticking to the facts and not engaging in dramatic narrative,” she said. “Science should guide public decisions that affect everyone.”

Joe Welborne from Tampa teared up as he accused the “sugar cartel” of manipulating the process. “Nobody in the fishing community wants to see the Glades folks suffer,” he said. “What we are dealing with is a dam that was built a long time ago before people realized the impact.

“People are not coming to Florida because all the world sees is messages about discharges,” he said. “Right now, people see Florida as algae, pollution, poison. These are people who spend tens of thousands of dollars for recreational fishing and they are not coming to Florida.

“The sugar cartel controls the dialog. The sugar cartel controls what we see and what we hear and what we feel,” he said. “The sugar cartel controls who is in this room.

“We’ve got to get algae, we’ve got to get discharges out of the news,” he said. “Right now, people are not coming to our state because of the issues surrounding the discharges.”

Publisher Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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