The Florida House has passed a bill that is expected to soon be approved by the Senate and sent to Scott for signing.
The bill establishes the appropriation framework and provides funding for ecosystem restoration project construction intended to bring the phosphorus content to water entering the Everglades from local sugar farms to 10 parts per billion. Those levels were at about 70 when the original program was created 20 years ago as a result of lawsuits by environmental groups.
The new bill also calls for sugar farmers to continue the best management practices administered by the South Florida Water Management District and extends the $25 an acre agriculture privilege tax, created in 1996 by an amendment to the Florida Constitution, until 2035.
Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee, led the initiative that led to the successful passage of the new legislation.
Both the Everglades Foundation and Audubon Florida, as well as other environmental groups, wanted the special tax on sugar farmers increased. But as a result of last-minute negotiations last month, a compromise was reached that led to the new bill.
“And while it didn't include everything that each side wanted, it is something both sides can live with,” Caldwell said. “The Everglades Foundation and Audubon Florida both still think the tax is too low, but they are no longer opponents of the bill as an entire package, because ultimately it will fund the final phase of Everglades restoration. And rather than have bogged down in fights over slices of the pie, we all agreed to focus on the whole pie and get the job done. That's really what this was all about. We're in a good place today and I'm happy where we ended up.”
The underlying issue dates back to the state's founding, Caldwell noted.
“Florida joined the union in March of 1845,” he said. “And in November 1845, one of the first things we ever did as a legislature was send a letter to Congress asking for the authority to drain and develop the Everglades. And that happened long before the first farmers came to the Everglades. And that's the way people need to understand the issue today. And we are all responsible now for undoing the damage that was done before as a result of state policy.”
The House bill, which passed unanimously, is now expected to pass the Senate and go to Scott for signing. It includes a $32 million annual appropriation to complete the terms of the $880 million, 13-year settlement reached with federal government last year.
In practice, Caldwell said, it means that Florida will have accomplished in about 20 yeas an Everglades restoration project that was originally expected to take 50 or 60 years,
“It is actually historic in terms of what we have achieved since 1994,” Caldwell said. “And now we're in the final phase of it.”
The compromise settlement drew praise from a consortium of Florida sugar industry interests that included U.S. Sugar Corporation, Florida Crystals Corporation and Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida.
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, agreed that on balance, the terms of the new legislation were fair and reasonable.
However, he questioned whether the phosphorus content of water entering the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee, by way of local sugar farms, has actually been reduced to an average of 13 parts per billion.
“The phosphorus levels are not consistently down to 13 percent,” Draper said. “So I would not declare victory on that yet.”
But, he said, Audubon Florida does agree that the restoration plan currently in place will probably meet the 10 parts per billion standard by 2025.
In the meantime, Draper said, Audubon Florida and its environmental allies still want more accomplished in terms of reducing the use of phosphorus on farms and the amount of phosphorus leaving sugar cane fields.
“We still think that more can be accomplished with the best management practices,” he said.
The path to accomplishing that goal, without changing any current laws or regulations, he said, is improving the way the Water Management District approaches best management practices.
“We believe they can do a better job in their farming practices in reducing the nutrients that are coming off their land,” Draper said.
Therefore, he said, Audubon Florida is involved in ongoing discussions with South Florida Water Management District about how that can be accomplished.
“It's the job of the regulating agency,” Draper said, “to stay on top of this and to make sure that the farmers are doing the best job possible.”