Op-ed: New Everglades Legislation Will Build Upon Success of State and Farmers’ Efforts
By Robert Coker, U.S. Sugar and Gaston Cantens, Florida Crystals
We take exception to Randy Schultz’ recent pronouncement in the Palm Beach Post that sugar farmers are not doing enough for restoration. This ignores nearly 20 years of detailed and heavily documented progress.
The agricultural area south of Lake Okeechobee includes the farming of sweet corn, green beans, lettuce and leaf, radishes, rice, celery, and of course, sugarcane. In fact, so many vegetables are grown here that the area is known as the “Winter vegetable capital of Florida.”
Farmers here are the only farmers in the country to pay a special “privilege tax” to farm our land. Those taxes have provided more than $200 million for Everglades restoration. In addition, farmers are spending additional millions of dollars each year to clean water leaving our farms. Everglades law requires us to reduce phosphorus leaving our farms by 25%. Since 1996, our efforts have reduced phosphorus an average of 55%. In fact, over the past two years, we have achieved over 70% reductions. This means the water leaving our lands actually has phosphorus content dramatically lower than the water we take from Lake Okeechobee for irrigation.
It’s neither fair nor helpful to ignore these widely recognized efforts and the success stemming from the on-farm efforts in conjunction with state water treatment marshes. Today, the majority of the Everglades Protection Area is meeting stringent water quality standards. In fact, Everglades National Park meets the 10 parts per billion standard, a standard cleaner than rain.
No other portion of the Everglades ecosystem that stretches from Orlando to the Florida Keys, other than this farmland, has been singled out for additional taxes nor tasked with clean-up at their own expense. In fact, in other areas of the system farmers can be paid or reimbursed to implement the water and soil management practices that we south of the Lake must fund ourselves.
While we all agree that there are still problems in the system, the Florida Legislature is showing true leadership by updating Everglades Restoration statutes to reflect the latest advances in Restoration Strategies and projects. Part of the funding for future advances will come from an extension of the taxes on sugar and vegetable farmers. We have agreed to continue paying these taxes to benefit restoration, even though they are otherwise scheduled to expire.
House Bill 7065 will codify current restoration plans into existing law and approve funding mechanisms. It includes language that ensures that farmers who are paying additional taxes and meeting clean-up requirements are in compliance with State law. Not being able to continually raise taxes on other people apparently irked opponents of this bill, who blew off repeated invitations to provide input.
That is unfortunate because groups that prefer litigate and complain rather than engage in meaningful discourse only delay and obstruct restoration. The Chairman of the State Affairs Committee met with the Everglades Foundation Board, visited with them in South Florida and even attended their Everglades Gala at the Breakers.
No matter what we do or how much we pay–it obviously will never be enough for certain people and groups. It’s a good thing that farmers and Florida’s elected officials are willing to recognize true progress and support legislation that will implement the final round of Everglades restoration projects rather than just continue to criticize and litigate.
Robert Coker, U.S. Sugar Gaston Cantens, Florida Crystals