By the Orlando Sentinel and Sun Sentinel Editorial Boards
What we called the worst environmental bill in state history is no longer horrible. But Gov. Ron DeSantis should still veto it.
To recap, Senate Bill 2508 in its original form essentially would have made Lake Okeechobee a permanent reservoir for farmers south of the lake. The Everglades, and almost everyone else in South Florida, would have suffered.SB 2508
After a torrent of public criticism, the Florida Senate quickly backpedaled and passed a rewritten version that removed all of the worst parts of the original. But sugar growers and their allies are relentless. They got yet another rewritten version through the Legislature last Monday on the final day of the session, during a one-day extension. If DeSantis signs this bill, it will be another unwarranted favor to the sugar industry.
The issue is complicated. We will simplify it.
During droughts, the South Florida Water Management District allocates water by making a recommendation to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the lake. The district bases its recommendations on rules 40 years old.
Not surprisingly, given the politics of that time, the rules favor farmers over the environment. On Jan. 1, the Corps of Engineers will enact new policies that make agriculture a lower priority and the environment a higher priority.
Under the revised SB 2508, however, any proposed rule from the water management district must be “ratified by the Legislature and presented to the governor” before going to the Corps of Engineers. No one seems certain whether DeSantis could veto the rule. A spokesman said the water management district is reviewing the bill and hasn’t taken a position.
The bill also apparently could affect money for Everglades restoration projects. State legislators would have to certify them. SB 2508′s original version held hostage state money for the essential new reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.
The extra step that the bill would create is unnecessary. Given the dense language of the bill, it’s also reason to be suspicious after the machinations of the past month.
Sen. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, a farmer, filed the original SB 2508 halfway through the session, well after the usual deadline for major legislation. He sought to tie those damaging policy changes to a budget bill, meaning that DeSantis — who opposed them — would have to veto the entire budget to block those favors for the sugar industry.
Everglades Foundation Executive Director Eric Eikenberg calls the new version of SB 2508 “a Hail Mary” by the sugar industry to salvage something from the 2022 session. Senate President Wilton Simpson, who chiefly sets the Senate’s agenda, is a Republican candidate for agriculture commissioner.
At Simpson’s urging, the Legislature last year shielded sugar growers from lawsuits over cane burning. This year, at Simpson’s urging, SB 2508 would give these same polluters a chance to lobby the Legislature against policies that favor the environment and bring resulting economic benefits.
News reports have flagged more problems with the bill. Utilities seeking to destroy wetlands could get permits faster. The state program to protect farmland could compete for money with Florida Forever, the program that buys land for environmental preservation.
Captains for Clean Water, the statewide coalition that claims to have generated 156,000 emails and 1,500 phone calls in opposition to the original bill, said in a statement that this version of SB 2508 is less of a threat. But the organization also said, “Even after being amended, SB 2508 does nothing to help Florida’s environment and other concerning provisions remain.”
Gil Smart is policy director for Friends of Everglades, which “River of Grass” author and Florida’s most famous environmentalist, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, founded. Smart told Treasure Coast News: “It’s important to note that (SB 2508) could still result in Big Sugar’s water supply being prioritized over the needs of the Everglades and the estuaries.”
For decades, Florida allowed sugar growers to dictate water policy. The industry wanted lake levels kept artificially high. Doing so caused discharges of polluted lake water to coastal estuaries that serve as breeding grounds for marine life.
Those discharges have killed grasses in the Indian River Lagoon, an estuary that runs from the Space Coast to Martin County. Manatees feed on those grasses. Without that sustenance, Florida’s iconic mammals are dying in record numbers, despite an emergency feeding program.
Water policy must change.
That depends on DeSantis, who ran for governor in 2018 as a harsh critic of Big Sugar and U.S. Sugar helped pay for attack ads against him. “I haven’t sat down and read everything on it,” the governor said of SB 2508. “But that is (in) a dramatically different posture today than it was a month ago.”
The bill passed a unanimous Senate, 33-0, and the House, 99-8. That gives DeSantis plenty of political cover from Democrats to sign it.
Before SB 2508, Florida was approaching an inflection point. Water policy would be out of Big Sugar’s control. The industry wants to maintain that control.
Only DeSantis can stop that from happening.
This piece was jointly written by the Orlando Sentinel and Sun Sentinel Editorial Boards. It is shared by the Invading Sea — the opinion arm of the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a collaborative of Florida news organizations focusing on the threats posed by the warming climate.