OKEECHOBEE — About 1,000 Lake Okeechobee area residents gathered at Pahokee High School on March 17 for a meeting with Florida Senate President Joe Negron Friday, March 17. With the school auditorium filled to capacity, more than half of those gathered waited outside, where they signed petitions against Senate Bill 10, and held signs protesting the legislation they believe could end their way of life by turning 60,000 acres of production farm land into an reservoir.
Inside the auditorium, local residents asked Sen. Negron to store water north of the lake and use land the state already owns in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) for water storage, rather than buying up more farmland.
“I’ve lived in Pahokee since 1960,” said Linda Moss of Pahokee, who spoke to Sen. Negron on behalf of the Glades community. “It was a wonderful place to grow up and as far as I am concerned it is still a wonderful place to live. My husband and I were childhood sweethearts. We grew up together and we built a business together, and unfortunately I lost him almost 5 years ago.
“We still find our business is a very good opportunity to serve the Glades and we are proud to be able to do that.
“We have a transportation business. We are not farmers but we move farm equipment, we deliver fertilizer and we also haul lettuce from the field to the packing house. We are not farmers, but we are involved in the packing industry. We love the people, We love the area.
“We live here, we work together and we worship together. When bad things happen, we all relate to it.
“Many years ago, our farmers were faced with a challenge that was mandated that they clean up the water that they were going to be discharging,” she continued.
She said the farmers did what they were supposed to do and over the years they have even exceeded the standards for water quality in runoff from the farms.
“We do not, we cannot and we will not support SB 10 as it is today,” she said.
“The devastation from the loss of jobs is unimaginable at this point,” she said.
“Our farmers have done and try to meet all of the expectations that have been placed on them. We feel it is time the coastal communities take accountability for what their issues are and what they have done to the water,” she said.
“We’re not saying that we’re perfect, but it seems like they don’t want to take the accountability and do what needs to be done to clean up their end of the water issue.
“Your algae problem — until that takes place — won’t be taken care of,” she said.
“I have talked to professional fishermen, and I said to them ‘is there a problem in the lake? I haven’t heard of a fish kill.’
“Their response to me has been, ‘No, there is no problem in the lake. We’re having bass tournaments. We’re catching record-size fish that are being released back into the lake.’ It is of their opinion that they lake is healthy and just going through the natural stages.
“We are known as the winter vegetable capital of the world. If you take 60,000 acres out of that, our food productivity will be so far down that it will make an impact across the whole state. Not only does Florida depend on this area for their food, but many large companies have contracts with our farmers, they depend on our farmers to produce at the level to meet their needs for their customers and their restaurants.
“The state of Florida already owns a large portion of land,” she said.
“There are several projects that were supposed to be implemented in these areas, and to my knowledge, none of these projects have been completed yet.
One of them is supposed to directly impact Florida Bay and its estuaries, and filter the water so that clean water will be going to the estuaries,” she said.
Until those planned projects are completed, adding another reservoir is not going to help, she said.
“You cannot let water shoot straight into this lake from the north and expect the lake to clean it before its pumped east and west.
“You’ve got to put it somewhere and clean it and then release it into the lake.
Otherwise, as it goes through the lake, it’s just going to stay dirty. It’s never going to be cleaned.
“We’ve got to have a retention area at the north end of the lake,” she said.
“There is development that is moving in faster than we can imagine,” she said in reference to the Kissimmee/Orlando area at the top of the watershed.
“If you don’t do something at the front end of the lake, it doesn’t matter what you do at the back end. You are still going to have dirty water coming through there.
“If you don’t put a reservoir at the north end of the lake to hold it and clean it, we are not going to accomplish anything,” she said.
“And until you finish these other projects that are already on the books, it’s not going to do anything.
“There is scientific data that supports what we are saying,” she continued, referencing the University of Florida Water Study.
Janet Taylor, of Glades Lives Matter, reinforced those comments.
“Farming is a way of life here. It continues to provide our families employment and opportunities for financial stability,” said Mrs. Taylor.
“The common struggle of outsiders trying to purchase our land has united our community more than ever before.
“We deserve economic development outside of Senate Bill 10,” she said.
“It is not fair to us to take from us in order to give back to us.
“The jobs that are being proposed are not permanent jobs. And what happens to folks who aren’t qualified?” she asked.
“Please don’t make this issue about saving one area of your district at the expense of another.
“There are credible solutions backed by science that will solve the problem of too much water and reducing the nutrients that fed the algae bloom last summer. All of the land for implementing these solutions has already been purchased and would not disrupt our community like Senate Bill 10 will,” said Mrs. Taylor.
Sen. Negron said that separately from Senate Bill 10, he is committed to improving the infrastructure in the Glades area, including improvements to the Pahokee marina.
“I understand that when you go to Publix and you go to the produce section, it just doesn’t magically arrive in the little things with cellophane on the top.
Things have to be grown.
“It’s unsustainable long term to have a situation when the lake gets to 16 feet, we are going to open up flood gates and discharge hundreds of billions of gallons of water east and west,” Sen. Negron said. He added that when the lake level is higher than 16 feet, it also poses a danger to the Glades communities, should there be a hurricane that compromises the dike.
“Everyone has an interest in making sure water can be contained so that it doesn’t damage the Glades and so that it doesn’t damage other communities,” he said.
“Ideas are a work in progress. That is why there are amendments. The bill is now in the Appropriations Committee where there will be changes,” he said.
Sen. Negron said he is open to the ideas of using land already in state ownership, of swapping land in state ownership for other land for the reservoir.
He stressed that more storage is needed south of the lake, but admitted that a combination of north and south storage are both needed to cut the releases east and west.
“More water has to go south,” he said.
“This is a man-made system,” Sen. Negron said.
“We’re not trying to undo history, but we need to have somewhere to store additional water,” he added.
Sen. Negron said all of the scientists who testified at the Senate hearings said the state needs some additional water storage south of the lake.
“The only question is when and where to do it,” he said.
In response to a question from a Vero Beach resident who wound up in the emergency room with a flesh-eating bacterial infection after going to the beach last summer, Senator Negron said cleaning up Florida’s water is critical.
“No one should have to go to the emergency room because they get into the water in Florida.
“What kind of state will we have if word gets out to the rest of the country?” he noted.
But Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay was quick to point out a bacterial infection was probably not due to lake releases.
Early in 2016, three weeks prior to any releases from Lake Okeechobee, there was a bacteria problem on the coast that caused the health department to close beaches, she pointed out.
She said local governments must be held responsible for addressing local water issues, which includes the problem of leaky septic tanks on the Treasure Coast.
She said the Glades area deserves economic development separate from any discussion of Senate Bill 10. The area has about 40,000 people with an unemployment rate of 20-28 percent
The area has a 40 percent poverty level. The average income in Pahokee and Belle Glade is about half the average in other parts of Palm Beach County, she explained.
She said taking land out of agricultural production not only would destroy jobs held by union workers, such as the large group of members of the Machinist Union in the audience, but also hurt the businesses where those workers spend money, such as the tackle shops and the Mom and Pop restaurants.
Commissioner McKinlay said the state does not need to purchase more land for water storage.
About 5.5 million acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee is already in public ownership, she pointed out.
More than 25 percent of the EAA is public land.
She added that the Integrated Delivery Schedule won’t determine the optimal location for the EAA reservoir until other parts of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) are completed.
Pahokee Mayor Keith Babb said the state should use the land already purchased before considering taking more farmland out of production. He said the state already purchased 120,000 acres of EAA land to be used for CERP projects.
The Glades cannot afford to lose any more jobs, he said, pointing out that one out of every four workers is currently unemployed.
Negron says state will find willing sellers in the EAA
Is land in the Everglades Agricultural Area of sale?
At the March 17 Glades Community Meeting at Pahokee High School, Florida Senate President Joe Negron broadly hinted that some property there is available for state purchase.
In a letter delivered to the Florida Senate in February, all of the owners who each hold more than 2,500 acres of farmland in the EAA stated their land was not for sale.
At Friday’s meeting State Representative Rick Roth, who owns a farm in Belle Glade, referenced that letter when he asked Sen. Negron, “If Senate Bill 10 passes, and there are no willing sellers, what happens?”
“I learned a long time ago not only in government service but also my work in the private sector, that you don’t know what is going to happen until you are further along down the road in accomplishing the goal,” replied Sen. Negron.
“I think it’s important to make sure that potential land owners who are willing to sell to us know that the state is committed to looking for opportunities to sell,” he said.
“There are companies in the past that have offered to sell, have given us options to buy their land, completely unrelated to this particular issue,” he continued.
“I am convinced, based on what I have seen happen, that the agricultural companies want to resolve this too,” he said.
“I believe by the time session is over that we can work toward a negotiated agreement where we will have a combination of government owned land and private owned land that will give us enough southern storage so that we can reduce and ultimately eliminate the discharges,” Sen. Negron continued.
“I didn’t hear my question answered,” Mr. Roth stated. “My question was, if you don’t find willing sellers — which I believe is the case, you are not going to find willing sellers — what is the second part of the bill say what is going to happen if the bill becomes law?”
“I don’t agree with you that we are not going to find sellers,” said Sen. Negron.
“There are many owners of land south of the lake that are in discussions with us in trying to solve this problem.
“We have an option, and I think all options should be on the table,” he said.
“One of the companies agreed years ago to provide an option to the state of Florida to sell some of their land or all of their land, and they voluntarily entered into this option and were compensated for that,” he said, referencing the agreement made between U.S. Sugar and the State of Florida when Charlie Crist was governor.
“I can tell you from personal knowledge and from discussions I have been involved with and do have an understand of that we do have the ability to address land swaps through other avenues, having some land owners who will work with us,” said Sen. Negron.
Amid murmurs from the crowd that Mr. Roth’s question still had not been answered, the moderators moved on to the next question.
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