By Mary Ellen Klas for Miami Herald
Sugar-cane growers and other farmers who own some of the largest parcels of land in the Everglades Agricultural Area told the Florida Senate on Monday that they will not willingly sell their land to build a water-holding reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, setting up a possible standoff in the power struggle over the future of Everglades cleanup.
The owners, which include sugar giants U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, said in a letter delivered to the Legislature on Tuesday that they “do not support any governmental acquisition of additional farm lands south of Lake Okeechobee to solve issues that are being caused north of Lake Okeechobee and in Martin County.
The letter is signed by 12 individuals representing 14 companies who farm in the EAA. Their argument: Any attempt to buy land to store water south of Lake Okeechobee “simply cannot store enough water to stop the discharges from Lake Okeechobee when our region is inundated from heavy rains.”
The proclamation has the potential to create a steep hurdle for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who has proposed spending $2.4 billion to buy 60,000 acres from “any willing seller” to build the reservoirs to store water. The goal is to avoid the damaging discharges from Lake Okeechobee that foul the estuaries on the east and west coasts with toxic algae, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency last year.
Absent enough willing sellers, the Senate proposal, SB 10, requires that the state exercise its right to negotiate the purchase of land from U.S. Sugar, which does not want to sell.
Increasing water storage has been part of the Everglades restoration plan for nearly 20 years, but progress has been slow and incomplete. Negron and environmentalists now want to speed up the construction of the reservoir in an attempt to avoid the damaging discharges.