Everglades Restoration Complicated by Florida Agricultural Interests

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In his 1904 campaign for governor, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward vowed to turn the vast South Florida marsh into an “Empire of the Everglades.” The ensuing efforts to tame the natural landscape set off a century of miraculous growth and development, but at great environmental cost. Restoration of the Everglades region is now among Florida’s most vexing challenges—complicated by an array of tariffs and subsidies that prop up the Big Sugar industry in the region.

Prior to human settlement, the Everglades was nearly twice the size it is today. Water flowed freely from Central Florida through the winding Kissimmee River and into Lake Okeechobee. In the wet seasons, the lake’s water levels rose until the liquid lapped over its southern edge into a vast “river of grass” before entering Florida Bay. The water flowed through expansive grassland prairies, marshes, and sloughs, giving rise to one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet.

Shortly after Florida was granted statehood, Congress passed the Swamp Lands Act of 1850. This law turned over roughly 20 million acres of federally owned swampland to the state to make way for food crops and cattle farms. By the 1920s, a series of canals had been constructed and a modest levee built out of muck and sand to protect settlements south of Lake Okeechobee from flooding. But these flood protections were easily overcome by two hurricanes in the 1920s, which led to extensive flooding and a devastating loss of life. At President Herbert Hoover’s instruction, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed over 130 miles of a 30-foot-tall earthen dike around the lake. The Army Corps dug canals to the east and west, allowing excess water to be flushed to the coasts through the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

Further hurricane-induced flooding events in 1947 prompted Congress to authorize the Central and Southern Florida Project, a regional water management system that created a vast network of canals, levees, pumps, and culverts to direct the flow of water. The once-winding Kissimmee River was channelized, sending stormwater runoff from Central Florida hurtling into Lake Okeechobee. Water gushed out of the Herbert Hoover Dike through the east and west canals while just trickling to the south. North of the lake, cattle ranches and citrus groves appeared. To the south, the Central and Southern Florida Project designated nearly 700,000 acres of fertile land as the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), now mostly occupied by sugar cane farms.

By the late 1960s, the environmental damage caused by the project was evident. What remained of the natural Everglades was frequently parched, and nutrient pollution threw the region’s ecosystems out of balance. The tide began to turn in 1970, when plans to build a sprawling new Miami jetport in the middle of Big Cypress Swamp roused a groundswell of conservationists into action. The struggle over the jetport coincided with a national environmental awakening in the early 1970s, prompting President Richard Nixon to quash the project and establish Big Cypress as the nation’s first national preserve in 1974. The state bought up large swaths of land and began backfilling the channel that skewered the Kissimmee River. Today, the Everglades is the target of the largest restoration effort in the world, featuring a tangled web of interdependent projects orchestrated by federal, state, and local agencies.

The largest restoration program in the Everglades region is the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), which aims to improve the quantity, quality, timing, and distribution of freshwater throughout the ecosystem. Authorized by Congress in 2000, CERP consists of more than 60 projects. Its “crown jewel” is a 10,500-acre reservoir in the EAA capable of storing about 78 billion gallons of water. Once completed, the reservoir will store and treat water from Lake Okeechobee before sending it south to Everglades National Park. This will bring flows to water-starved portions of the park and reduce the need for harmful discharges of nutrient-laden water to the east and west coasts.

Yet there are concerns that the $4 billion reservoir isn’t large enough to accomplish its goals. The original proposal for the project was a much larger 60,000-acre reservoir capable of storing and treating about 117 billion gallons of water. The project was downscaled due to difficulties in acquiring sufficient land. In 2008, then-Gov. Charlie Crist planned to buy almost 200,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar at a cost of $1.75 billion. After the recession, the deal was reduced to just 72,800 acres for $536 million before collapsing altogether in 2015.

Environmental activists frequently blame “Big Sugar” for nutrient pollution in Lake Okeechobee. In reality, sugar cane production in the EAA contributes a relatively small portion of the lake’s nutrient pollution, compared to the urban centers and cattle ranches to the north. The much greater consequence of large-scale sugar cane production in the EAA is that it stands in the way of constructing additional storage and treatment infrastructure to send additional water south.

Future efforts to acquire land in the EAA will likely continue to be stymied by powerful agricultural interests unless lawmakers challenge the quotas and subsidies that prop up the sugar industry and raise the value of EAA land. Federal policy restricts the supply of imported sugar and effectively sets a minimum price for sugar in the U.S. that is typically twice as high as the world market price. If sugar prices fall too low, the U.S. government is required to buy domestically produced sugar and resell it at a loss to ethanol producers. These backward policies cost consumers between $2.4 billion and $4 billion annually, hurting the public but benefiting large sugar corporations. Absent these handouts, it may not be so attractive to cultivate sugar cane in the EAA and the sugar cane producers may be less motivated to maintain a stranglehold on the land.

Human ingenuity broke the Everglades system, and that same ingenuity has devised an ambitious plan to fix it. Overcoming Florida’s vested agricultural interests may prove a more daunting task.

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