Efforts To Save The Everglades Have Resulted In A Bitter Political Debate. Here’s What Environmentalists And Big Sugar Have To Say.
South Florida is an environmental wonder. The Everglades ecosystem, beginning north of Lake Okeechobee and extending all the way to Florida Bay, is unique in the world. But pressure from agriculture and development is pushing our natural treasure into a state of crisis. On one side of the water wars are environmentalists who fear a disastrous water shortage is closer than people realize. On the other are agricultural interests, commonly referred to as Big Sugar. Ecological peril has already been manifested when, to prevent overflow from Lake Okeechobee, water has been discharged into the estuaries on both the east and west coasts. The polluted water has devastated wildlife, particularly in the Stuart area, where the economy is historically tied to boaters and fishermen. In this section, we profile the major forces on both sides of the issue.
It has taken more than a century for the Everglades to get into ecological danger. Now an effort is underway to cure its ills—the roads and farms blocking channels where water once flowed freely into the Everglades. The signs of neglect stretch through much of Florida: a polluted Lake Okeechobee; waterways fouled to the point of health hazards for man and wildlife; plus water levels that alternate from dangerously high and threatening floods, to so low that the drinking water supply for South Florida could be affected. Efforts to restore the River of Grass have produced a collision of commercial interests and environmental concerns, resulting in a bitter political debate. In this special section, we highlight the issues in this historic challenge by profiling those on the front lines of the water wars.
The Super Gladesman
For many people in South Florida, the Everglades are just a big, boring swamp they have to cross to get to the Gulf Coast. They don’t appreciate the fact that the River of Grass, as Marjory Stoneman Douglas termed it, is the only feature of its kind in the world. It may appear to be a vast marsh, but it is actually a very broad river, flowing south. Nor are they aware of the importance it represents for the area’s water supply and the ecology of the state in general.
For those people, and the thousands moving to the state each year, there is a recent documentary that should be mandatory viewing as the price of admission. Charles Kropke, host of the film titled “The Unseen Everglades: Inside a Legendary Wilderness,” covers the subject—all 300 miles of it, beginning with Shingle Creek near Orlando, flowing into the Kissimmee River, then Lake Okeechobee, and eventually reaching all the way to Florida Bay. He traces the history of this ecological wonder, right up to the current effort to cure the pollution and restore the system to its original design.
The documentary compresses thousands of years of ecological evolution into an entertaining hour. Kropke has spent 30 years researching the Everglades. He interviews legendary Everglades advocates, such as Nat Reed from Stuart, as well as sportsmen, farmers and park rangers who know the subject intimately. They live it.
Kropke goes canoeing in a tropical creek beginning the journey near Orlando. Far to the south, he wades thigh-high in the southern swamps that empty into Florida Bay. Much of the film—the central theme, in fact—is devoted to the problems facing the Everglades, and what is being done, and not done, to cure them.
Among the successes are the Kissimmee River, originally a serpentine waterway that years ago was straightened to drain land for agriculture. It has been restored to its original configuration, with rewarding results in terms of the environment, enabling the return of wildlife and acting as a filter to treat the runoff from farms along its route. Along that journey, Kropke meets a farmer who shows that agriculture and water protection can be compatible. But the film puts equal emphasis on the challenges remaining, notably the discharges of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee that periodically devastate estuaries on both coasts of the state. To the south, he explains how roads crossing the state interrupt the natural flow of water, preventing the water from replenishing the Everglades. He also details the slow and expensive solution to construct new bridges to correct man’s mistake of decades past.
Kropke has impressive expertise on the subject. From the time his family moved from Maryland to Fort Myers when he was 10, he has been a regular in the Everglades. He proudly considers himself a “Gladesman.” As a teenager he took part in a program to root out invasive melaleuca trees. “We killed millions of melaleuca trees,” he says. “We even pulled out little sprouts. I’ve tromped every corner of the Glades.”
All that Glades tromping relates to one of his many business interests. His resume reads like a thousand guys. The 6-foot-4 entrepreneur who favors western boots (even with a preppy jacket and tie) is working on two books (one is about the Glades, naturally). He is also an active fundraiser for various preservation and ecological organizations.
In a field crowded with people often dispirited and angry at the politicians who thwart their efforts to preserve Florida’s natural wonders, Kropke remains contagiously upbeat.
“I’m an optimist,” he explains. “I prefer being with the people who are moving the needle—all the little soldiers doing their thing. They have no political power, but they are out there all the time.”
Like we said, a thousand guys.
The Right Man for the Job
Eric Eikenberg seemed predestined for his job as chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation. He grew up in Coral Springs at the edge of the Everglades. He attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, named for the legendary Everglades champion.
Later, he was chief of staff for the late Congressman E. Clay Shaw, who made Everglades restoration one of his causes during his long political career. Eikenberg later held the same position with Gov. Charlie Crist, who engineered the proposed purchase of U.S. Sugar land near Lake Okeechobee. That buy, now stalled, is considered by many people to be critical in helping restore the flow of water to the south.
The Everglades Foundation, which traces to 1993, has attracted influential supporters, including singer Jimmy Buffett and golf legend Jack Nicklaus. Although its mission includes educating people on the importance of this natural resource, it takes a more active approach in organizing the efforts to complete several projects that have been long in progress. Eikenberg is one of the most frequently quoted spokesmen on various issues, including on those occasions when efforts to thwart Everglades restoration make news.
“We are in year 15 of CERP (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan), which was passed by congress,” Eikenberg says. “Congressman Shaw introduced it in the House, Bob Graham in the Senate and it was signed by President Bill Clinton. And Jeb Bush, when governor, was on board. It is a 30-year plan, and we are at the halfway point. This deals with the same challenges that have plagued the Glades for years. They could all be solved if we truly moved toward full restoration. This is not some concocted plan of just a few years ago. And now we’re at a critical time.”
The plan includes some projects now underway, although at a slower pace than projected. They include bridging the Tamiami Trail to permit water to flow into the southern Everglades and Florida Bay. But the one project most pressing at the moment, because it seemed assured just a few years ago, is the purchase of U.S. Sugar land to permit the natural flow of water from Lake Okeechobee to the south. Florida voters approved this project last year when they passed Amendment 1, but the project was later stalled when the South Florida Water Management District voted to use the money elsewhere.
“You have to build reservoirs to store and clean the water. The big effort was to buy the land for that, to keep as much water on the peninsula to protect the water supply,” Eikenberg says.
Despite the recent setbacks with Amendment 1, he sees public opinion building to achieve these goals.
“People are starting to get involved who [have] non-traditional interests in the environment. Realtors, businessmen are realizing their lifeline is the Everglades,” Eikenberg says. “If we don’t succeed, the economy of South Florida will suffer.”
Eikenberg returns to the central solution: “We don’t need any more group think. We have a plan in place. We need money and the political determination to show the public we are serious. And it’s not just us. It’s other places in the country that have water problems. They’re watching Florida. We can’t fail.”
A Voice in the Wilderness
The Arthur R. Marshall Foundation based in West Palm Beach is a very different sort of animal from The Everglades Foundation. Its primary function is to educate people about the Everglades. But it is its president that makes it more than relevant to the current situation. He is Mark Pafford, minority leader of the Florida House In a Republican dominated Legislature, his Democratic views are a voice in the wilderness, but his job makes him an exceptionally well-informed member.
The foundation is named for a longtime Florida scientist and teacher, who until his death in 1985, was one of the most involved advocates for the River of Grass. As its president, Pafford is among the most knowledgeable elected officials on the water problem, but it doesn’t do him much good at the moment.
“It’s no coincidence that I’m president of the Arthur R. Marshall Foundation because I know the issue pretty well,” he says. “There’s only a handful of people in the Legislature who really seem to care, and I’m one of them. It’s frustrating—to say the least. People on the inside just don’t get it.”
Pafford traces the current failure to implement Amendment 1 to Gov. Rick Scott.
“The governor makes the appointments to the board and they are following his wishes, which are contrary to the restoration plan. It is not a good thing at all. Voters are frustrated with elected officials. It seems to depend on who gave them the last check,” Pafford says.
He’s referring to checks from Big Sugar. When asked if he receives contributions from that source, Pafford replies: “I used to.”
A River Runs Through It
Can a campaign contribution become a bribe? How about millions of dollars to public officials who consistently vote for the interests of those who make the contributions, and against the wishes of their own neighbors who elected them? When a respected local community leader suggested at a meeting earlier this year that some recent court decisions might open the door to having such contributions considered criminal bribery, it drew a standing ovation from a high-powered audience.
The place was Stuart, Florida, and the audience was the membership of The Rivers Coalition Defense Fund—a group that has been in an increasingly frustrating losing battle to protect its local rivers and waterways from devastating destruction caused by periodic discharges of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee. The Rivers Coalition was formed in 1998 in response to futile efforts made by Martin County citizens to halt the discharges, which are controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers, and occur when water levels in the lake become dangerously high and threaten to break the levee surrounding the lake.
The levee was built before agricultural interests arrived to pour runoff fertilizers into the lake, and at the same time take huge quantities of water to irrigate its sprawling sugar cane fields. That was a time when overflow from the lake went south, supplying the expanse of the Everglades—a slow flowing river. But since then, the sugar industry has taken over much of the drained land, blocking the natural flow of water to the Everglades. The water from the lake has been released through canals into the estuaries of the St. Lucie River in Stuart and, on the other coast, into the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers.
The Rivers Coalition was a successor to several attempts over the decades to create a group with enough clout to influence water decisions affecting the St. Lucie River and Estuary. The impact of the group is indeed considerable. Membership includes several local chambers of commerce, virtually every important marine industry in the area, real estate interests with waterfront access, a builders association, the publisher of Florida’s leading outdoor magazine and representatives of the most important environmental organizations. And yet, it is a measure of the forces opposed to it that the organization to date has not made much progress in halting the periodic discharges from Lake Okeechobee.
It would seem to have obvious political clout, but with few exceptions, the elected officials from the area tend to support the agricultural interests when it comes to matters affecting the water in their own home turf. And, critics contend, it isn’t just current office holders. The campaign money has vision, helping to determine future leaders in Tallahassee.
“Sugar controls by virtue of heavy contributions to both the House and Senate,” says Kevin Henderson, president of The Rivers Coalition Defense Fund. “The money goes to the fair-haired banner carriers. And they’ve adapted to term limits and direct the money to the people they want to see in future leadership. Through various PACs they provide money to achieve that.
“There is not a person [in politics] with the balls to fight the sugar industry. They are all afraid to speak up for fear they’ll be targeted. If you want to advance in Florida politics, you have to take the sugar money, and if you do, you are their slave.”
Despite its enthusiasm for the word bribery, The Rivers Coalition Defense Fund did not vote to move on the idea. Past president of The Rivers Coalition Defense Fund and former Miami Herald reporter Karl Wickstrom says bribery cases are very difficult to prove. “They can always say, ‘Sure, I took the money but I voted the way I did because I thought it was the right thing to do,’” he says.
Big Sugar contributes to many elected officials, both Democrats and Republicans, local and national, who can be helpful to its business. But if an individual illustrates the amounts of money and the type of legislator Big Sugar favors, critics cite state Sen. Joe Negron. The Stuart Republican fits Kevin Henderson’s description of the ambitious politician who seems to be heading for power and who is helped along by campaign money. At press time in early September, Negron was in the running for president of the Senate, and in August claimed he had it in the bag. If so, he can likely thank the agricultural interests. The money is difficult to trace, but environmentalists say agriculture has contributed at least $750,000 to him or organizations he controls during the last few years. Negron didn’t return multiple phone calls and an email requesting comment regarding the campaign contributions.
Negron’s campaign largesse has been well publicized. Last December, Treasure Coast Newspapers (which owns the Stuart News and two other Treasure Coast dailies) reported that his political committees had raised $2.6 million from many sources including agriculture since 2012. The papers quoted Peter Butzin, the state chairman of government watchdog group Common Cause Florida, as calling such contributions “legal bribery.” Butzin added, “Sen. Negron, like all his colleagues and all other elected officials, aren’t doing anything illegal. And that’s the real obscenity.”
Butzin has also cited Negron’s potential conflicts of interest as a member of the Gunster Yoakley & Stewart law firm. The firm is registered to lobby on behalf of U.S. Sugar, All Aboard Florida and Florida Power and Light Co., all of which have important issues with various governments.
Among insiders in Stuart, the jury is out. Some consider Negron a friend of the environment. Others suspect him of giving lip service to protecting the St. Lucie River from pollution, but doing little to prevent it. As an example, in April, at the height of the controversy over Amendment 1 funds, the Stuart News ran a story saying Negron was fighting for $500 million to help move Lake Okeechobee water south and reduce discharges into the St. Lucie River. Nothing happened and he never got the money. His critics say he knew it was too late: Budgets were already set.
“You get a headline like that, and it looks like he’s trying,” Wickstrom says. “Then nothing happens. What’s the public to think? I think he’s the worst enemy the river has had.”
Big Sugar is an umbrella term that includes vast agricultural interests in the Lake Okeechobee area. Some people prefer the term Big Ag to include non-sugar interests. That includes citrus growers and cattle ranchers, but environmentalists say they are a small part of the problem.
The real problem, however, is the sugar cane industry, which has land holdings where the northern reaches of the Everglades used to be, and where drained land now blocks the natural flow of water from the lake to the south. Two Big Sugar firms are Florida Crystals (owned by the Fanjul family) and U.S. Sugar Corporation. Of these, U.S. Sugar is the primary target for critics because sections of its land were scheduled for purchase by the state with money from Amendment 1, a purchase already scaled down from former Gov. Charlie Crist’s original goal. That land was expected to largely cure the pollution problems in the St. Lucie River and Caloosahatchee River estuaries by allowing lake water to flow south instead of east and west—in the process cleansing it naturally as it enters the Everglades.
U.S. Sugar is accused of using its political influence (all the way to the governor’s office) to change the state’s position on the land purchase. Years back, however, before draining the Everglades had unforeseen consequences, the privately owned company was admired for bringing the modern sugar industry to Florida.
In 1931, Charles Stewart Mott, who had made a fortune in the auto parts industry, bought land around Lake Okeechobee. He brought in leading experts to make the company one of the most efficient in the industry, and provided a nice workforce for a quiet sector of Florida. Today, U.S. Sugar has the admirable distinction of being one of the few Florida companies that is partly employee owned (Publix is another). The 1,700 employees own about 25 percent of the stock.
The spokesperson for U.S. Sugar in the current controversy could not be better suited to the task. Robert Coker, senior vice president for public affairs, has been with the company for more than 30 years. He was born in Jacksonville, raised in Gainesville, graduated from Florida State University and married to the daughter of a former Clewiston mayor. He is instantly likable, and although he has given few interviews on the water crisis recently, he can talk up a storm on the topic, even when recovering from knee surgery, which he was doing in late August.
Few people know the Everglades better, at least when it comes to the water situation.
“For the last 30 years, the big riddle that we were all trying to solve early was the water quality issue,” Coker says, adding that that problem has been largely addressed. “What’s still to be solved is the water quantity issues. There are huge demands from the urban communities.”
He says that development has contributed to pollution by taking away land surrounding lakes and other water sources north of Lake Okeechobee that used to be natural filters for water entering the lake. That, and much of what he says will find no argument from environmentalists. It is when it comes to the discharges from Lake Okeechobee that his views differ.
“We can’t discharge it to the south because it’s full. That’s why you discharge east and west,” he says.
By “full” he’s referring to the five Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs) south of U.S. Sugar’s land, where water is cleansed before being allowed to flow farther. But much of the lower Everglades is desperate for water. The aquifer serving South Florida is lowering every year, and the large Everglades National Park needs water.
He defends the South Florida Water Management District’s decision not to purchase U.S. Sugar land with money approved under Amendment 1. He says the money can be spent on other much-needed projects. When questioned about his company’s seeming enthusiasm for the sale, touted on its website several years ago, he says, “The state changed its mind. So did we.”
What he doesn’t say is that the district’s unpaid board of governors has changed since the purchase plan was developed, and that the new board members, appointed by Gov. Scott, are considered by environmentalists to be mostly unqualified proxies for the governor. Many believe that Gov. Scott doesn’t care about conservation.
Many of Coker’s views are supported by environmentalists. He favors moving ahead quickly with other water conservation projects that everyone favors. But environmentalists do not favor those projects over the Amendment 1 solution, which would solve the immediate problems. He seemed surprised to hear that an expert contends that the existing STA’s south of Lake Okeechobee (if expanded and given enough water) could solve much of the discharge problem—perhaps stilling the cries for buying sugar land.
“I don’t know if they can make that claim,” Coker says. “If true, we would love that.”
As for the sensitive subject of campaign contributions, Coker is not defensive.
“Everything we do is within the limits of what the law says we can do,” he says. He points out that a number of Florida companies contribute heavily to lawmakers—citing FPL, Disney and Publix, among others. “Our company participates in a fairly aggressive way. But don’t think that is some late-at-night, sleazy deal. All donations are publicly disclosed. And the other side does the same. The Everglades Foundation has a lot of millionaires behind it, and they contribute. They give millions of dollars. They can participate and we can’t? It’s a false accusation. We’re no different from anybody else in Florida,” he says.
For the record, Eric Eikenberg says The Everglades Foundation—a non-profit—is forbidden by law to make political contributions, and makes none.
Ron Bergeron is not called Alligator Ron for nothing. He is unique among Everglades figures in that he literally lives there. His ranch on U.S. 27 west of Fort Lauderdale is as far out as you can go on paved public highways. He is the only person in this story who can claim to have seen the Everglades before 95 percent of the levees and pump stations appeared to alter nature’s water plan.
“We have 8,000 acres just the way God made it. I love it,” says a man whose family has been in the Glades since the mid-1800s. “My grandfather was a game warden, and I grew up living with deer, turkeys, hogs, bears and panthers. I will never forget God’s landscaping I saw as a little boy. I remember the smells and the sunsets. I have a real passion for the Everglades.”
That’s the reason he is a member of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, appointed by Gov. Scott. As a quasi public official, he is careful in discussing the politics of water management. He clearly believes the spirit of Amendment 1 should be implemented: “I think the citizens of the state spoke very loudly in their vote. We want conservation, and we want our natural resources protected,” he says.
A few minutes later he adds: “Everybody in Tallahassee has to obey the wishes of the people.” But not once in almost one hour’s phone conversation did he mention by name anybody blocking progress. The word sugar never came up.
Indeed Bergeron had good words for Gov. Scott, who “has been intricately involved,” and he praises the state for good water management. He says the water entering the Everglades is much cleaner than in the past.
He prefers to hope that the love of “one of the wonders of the world” will overcome the love of money. He calls for “eyes focused on the global Everglades, with shared adversity and shared impact.” He points out, several times, that we need equalization of water, so that the central Everglades “are not drowning in water at the same time Everglades National Park is starving for water.” In other words, return the Everglades to its original state through “the greatest restoration project the world has ever known.”
If that sounds like a cheerleader, that’s what Alligator Ron is. “I try to bring a consensus of the global Everglades and get us all to work together. I try not to be negative about the people in this circle,” he says.
Bergeron knows the job can be done. He has seen the past and, at 72, hopes to live long enough to see it again.
As this feature was being prepared, an event occurred that may be a water game-changer. In August, Gary Goforth, a former engineer with the South Florida Water Management District—the man who designed the stormwater treatment areas (STAs) south of Lake Okeechobee—reported that an unprecedented 190 billion gallons of water from the lake was sent to the STAs in the last year.
It was previously thought by some that such large discharges would damage the STAs, but Goforth says not only was there no damage, but the STAs performed better than they ever have in their 21-year history. He says the success was due to slowly releasing lake water throughout the year, especially in the dry season, rather than inundating the STAs during times of emergency. The STAs can be expanded, but even if they were not, they appear capable of treating enough water to greatly reduce discharges into the estuaries on both sides of the lake.
“This could solve much of the problem, but not all,” says Karl Wickstrom, past president of The Rivers Coalition Defense Fund.“If they can do this, we’d be dancing in the streets.”