Here is a New Year’s wish: that the agony of Florida’s environment and coastal economies, increasingly threatened by polluted water gushing from Lake Okeechobee, will be relieved by the one measure no government agency has had the courage to propose — the taking by eminent domain of large tracts in the Everglades Agricultural Area, replacing sugar cane with vast storage and cleansing marshes.
It is an amazement that coastal real estate, tourism and fisheries, representing hundreds of billions of dollars in real value, is at grave risk by a crop that could not be profitable if not for immense subsidies through Big Sugar’s manipulation of U.S. farm policy and international trade agreements.
That Big Sugar dominates the political landscape is no excuse for silence while the state of Florida professes nothing more can be done and nothing can be done more quickly than to wait years, if not decades, for results.
Nothing, that is, except eminent domain.
Eminent domain is a process sanctioned by state and federal government and regularly used to take private property for public purposes. The purpose for which land must be taken out of production of sugarcane is to relieve the agony of Florida’s coastal communities and local economies, suffering under a punishing weight of polluted water from the blasted Lake Okeechobee.
For decades, the needs of Big Sugar have dominated the management of freshwater resources in Florida. Just like Goldilocks — not too hot and not too cold — the Everglades Agricultural Area’s 700,000 acres are never too wet or too dry. And for decades, Lake Okeechobee paid the price the way that coastal communities on the receiving end of the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee are now paying, too.
For Florida’s coastal communities, the solution is to advocate taking by eminent domain a sufficient area of sugar fields, to turn into massive cleansing marshes. In doing so, the Everglades would also benefit, by providing a simulacrum of natural flow, allowing fresh water to spill, seasonally, into the Everglades like a teacup overflowing into a saucer.
Florida’s counties will have to take the lead, because not a single state or federal official — not even former Sen. Bob Graham, champion of the Everglades, who will soon be inducted into its Hall of Fame by the Everglades Coalition — has ever suggested using eminent domain to take sugar lands. Even national non-profit environmental organizations in Florida — after massive efforts of their own — are paralyzed by what appears to be an immovable political reality.
Why eminent domain is the only choice left is manifest in a hundred ways. The best example, however, was the recent payment by the South Florida Water Management District of $8 million to the wealthy Fanjul family of West Palm Beach to stop its farming on public property called Talisman Farm.
The 50,000-acre Talisman Farm was sold to the state and federal government in 1999 for $152 million at the end of long, hard and complicated negotiations with the owner, St. Joe Corp.
Environmentalists wanted government agencies to put the land into stormwater management right away, knowing the Everglades ecosystem, on the verge of collapse, could scarcely wait for big storage reservoirs to cleanse and filtrate Big Sugar’s polluted water.
Big Sugar elbowed its way into the Talisman deal, and got to lease property for 10 additional years, at practically no cost.
Most people would take $8 million to be a fortune. For Big Sugar, it is a rounding error.
The state of Florida has tried to put its positive spin on a payment that Florida Audubon’s Charles Lee accurately called “tribute.”
In ancient Rome, tribute enforced allegiance and submission of outlying states and tribes to the empire, and thus it is that the payment of the state of Florida has an added resonance: Even a good dog needs a whack on the snout now and again, just to show who the master is.
The events of 2005, when finally the vast pollution streaming from Lake Okeechobee laid to waste coastal resources as thoroughly as Gen. Sherman laid waste to Georgia, show just what submission costs.
Gritting its teeth, the state of Florida is warning local county commissions away from the option of litigation, pointing to the decades-long battle in federal court wrapping up the Everglades. Most knowledgeable observers believe the state’s plans to be too little, too late: a placeholder for Big Sugar’s desire to develop the Everglades Agricultural Area into new cities.
Eminent domain is a last resort.
And so this New Year’s wish: That enough elected officials — not just brave elected officials like Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah — will begin coming to the point of view that eminent domain makes more sense than standing by the wishing well, while the deterioration of Florida’s economic potential and environment accelerates.