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Green algae can be an ally for environmentalists

Green algae just might be the best lobbying tool environmentalists have in making their case that the state should buy land owned by U.S. Sugar.

Last week, a bloom of toxic blue-green algae in water adjacent to Lake Okeechobee led to the suspension of water pumping that had been ordered by the Army Corps of Engineers. Environmentalists want to purchase about 46,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land that could be used to build a reservoir to capture the dirty discharge, purifying the water that drains into the Everglades, a case that was bolstered by last week’s bloom.

On Tuesday, the green algae was on full display during a news conference on the steps of the Capitol.

“The U.S. Sugar land gives us the opportunity to treat the water and send it south where it belongs rather than dumping it on those poor people on the coast,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, holding a bottle filled with dark green water that ostensibly came from Lake Okeechobee. “If they don’t buy the U.S. Sugar land then the people downstream from Lake Okeechobee can expect to continue to get this type of green, slimy, toxic algae water dumped on them on a continuous basis.”

It should have been a good year to lobby lawmakers for the land.

Voters passed a ballot measure in November, Amendment 1, that earmarked 33 percent of documentary tax revenue for land preservation and conservation efforts. Next year, that should mean about $740 million of available revenue.

But while supporters of Amendment 1 had made clear that they wanted at least $300 million restored to the state’s land acquisition program, Florida Forever, neither the House or the Senate budgets come close. The House budget provides about $10 million for land buys through Florida Forever. The Senate provides about $17 million.

To complicate matters more, U.S. Sugar no longer wants to sell its land, despite negotiating the sale with the state in 2010. Not only does the company oppose the deal, it’s lobbying against it, spending $550,000 in campaign contributions this year on state legislative races in 2016.

To answer questions about the purchase, U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez refers reporters to a statement that the company has been using for months. It’s up to the South Florida Water Management District to exercise the option to buy the land, according to the statement. The board voted against the purchase earlier this month. With estimates that it would cost between $300 million and $500 million, the board concluded it was too costly with too little benefit. How independent is the board? Well, it includes this guy.

And don’t forget about Malcolm “Bubba” Wade, a U.S. Sugar vice president, who currently sits on the South Florida Water Management District Water Resources Advisory Commission.

But independent or not, the water district’s objection to the purchase is U.S. Sugar’s main line of argument.

“All of the state parties have concluded that buying the U.S. Sugar option land does not solve any significant problems and doing so would consume HUGE financial resources elsewhere for real and more immediate environmental benefits,” the U.S. Sugar statement says. “That is why the focus of these taxpayer dollars has been on completing the badly needed projects that are currently planned and approved for construction.”

Draper questioned the premise of U.S. Sugar’s objection.

“That is amazing that U.S. Sugar is pretending to protect Florida taxpayers,” Draper said. “Isn’t that amazing? We use taxpayer dollars to subsidize the sugar industry in the state of Florida to provide them with free irrigation water, to give them flood protection and now they’re saying they’re protecting the taxpayer? That’s pretty amazing.”

Draper said the U.S. Sugar property’s last chance for funding may depend on whether Senators amend SB 918, which is up for a floor vote tomorrow. It would allow the state to buy land near the Everglades to build a storage treatment facility to treat Lake Okeechobee discharges before it goes downstream.

But it’ll be written in such a way, Draper said, that wouldn’t limit it to U.S. Sugar land.

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