Glades farmers: Don't send the water south

Posted at 10:55 PM, Feb 23, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-24 16:02:25-05

Where should we send Lake Okeechobee water?

That's a decision a Senate bill up for vote this March wants to make, by sending the water south. The idea has been discussed and debated over the years, with last summer's blue algae crisis making the outcome more crucial than ever.

But farmers and businesses don't want to give up their land. As the legislative session approached, that battle is heating up.

Senate Bill 10 -- filed by Sen. Rob Bradley (R-Fleming Island) and backed by Florida Senate President Joe Negron (R-Stuart) is causing a stir in the Everglades Agricultural Area, known as the EAA. The bill aims to use at least $3 billion of tax payer money to buy 60,000 acres of farmland to build reservoirs and prevent another blue algae crisis.

"I'm very encouraged with the progress that we're making. We now made a persuasive case that we do need additional storage capacity south of Lake Okeechobee," said Sen. Negron in a phone interview Thursday.

The bill would help purchase the land and pay for a reservoir expected to hold 120 billion gallons of water. That's about as much water that was discharged from Lake Okeechobee in surrounding estuaries last summer, devastating the Treasure Coast.

Farmers and businesses who live and work in the EAA are so upset, they formed the non-profit, EAA Farmers, in January to fight back against the bill. EAA Farmers said there are no willing sellers.

Mike Schlecter of Belle Glade is part of that group. His great-grandfather started his family's legacy back in 1919.

"The 1928 hurricane killed his while family," recounted Schlecter.

But his forefathers kept going, creating what is now Everglades Farm Equipment in the 1960s. Schlecter is now the company's vice president, with his brothers and children also working in the family business.

But Shlecter said a new storm threatens the family business. This one, he said, comes from Tallahassee through SB 10.

"And the scary thing is, if it doesn't solve the problem, we've just put thousands of people out of work for not really a good reason," he said.

Everglades Farm Equipment is one of the biggest John Deere tractor dealers in the world, according to Schlechter. While the company operates across the state, the Belle Glade location is their flagship.

"You would take away probably 40 percent of our business. Which would be a significant, significant hit to the area," said Schlechter.

Paul Allen, co-owner of RC Hatton Farms, watches over fields just miles from Schlechter's office.

He also runs his own family business. During WWII, his family continued farming -- despite the draft -- by orders of the government to help support the country during war.

"We've been farming for over eight decades. Never thought I would be fighting to keep our land," he said. "The land is here. Don't take it out of production. It's a matter of national security."

They farm products like sugar cane, corn, green beans and cabbage.

"A lot of people don't understand what 60,000 acres means. Well, that is also about 25 percent of the vegetable production in this area," said Allen.

Allen says the the Eastern seaboard relies on his crop during the winter months.

"When you take 25 percent of the vegetable production for seven months out of the year from this area. It's huge. A lot of jobs. The price of vegetables will go up all over the country," said Allen. "We would have to depend on other countries for our vegetables."

Allen added that the muck soil in the EAA is unique lake bottom soil that can't really be found anywhere else in the state.

"Land doesn't reproduce itself and God's not making anymore land," he said.

Allen Farms sits on 9,000 acres. While the bill doesn't pinpoint exactly where it wants to seize the 60,000 acres in the EAA, vegetable farms like Allen's are still under threat.

That unknown is what has employers on edge.

"We're trying not to scare our employees. We're encouraging them to do what they can," he said.

A new study released Thursday by a public policy group based in Tallahassee claims the state could face a negative economic impact of nearly $700 million as well as more than 4,000 jobs lost.

Schlecter says doesn't know what to tell his employees if the bill passes. There's about 75 potential layoffs but some positions could be relocated to other facilities.

"I have known their families for years. It would not be a good situation," he said. "If the farmland is taken. There's not a whole lot we can do other than to downsize."

We asked Sen. Negron what the state is doing to ensure people are taken care of if the bill passes.

"I'm committed to working with our agricultural community and the women and men who live and work in the glades area. I represent Pahokee," he said. "I have great respect for our agriculture community and I believe there's a way to solve this discharge issue without hurting anyone economically."

He couldn't clarify how. But Negron said he thinks the economic impact of blue algae is far greater.

"The report that came out today doesn't measure the economic impact of the blue algae. Businesses were shut down, permanent jobs were lost. And it had an enormous effect on the state," he said. "I feel like the voices of our community are being heard not just in southeast Florida but Southwest Florida and all throughout the state, that we have to have a better solution than poisoning estuaries East and West of Lake Okeechobee when we get a lot of rain. "

Negron said he is willing and hopeful to discuss the concerns farmers have.

"Everything is on the table," he said. "We're working with the stakeholders to try and negotiate a resolution that provides for additional storage but doesn't cause unreasonable economic impacts to the Glades area."

The bill asks the South Florida Water Management District to secure willing sellers, but if the land purchase falls through, SB 10 requires a second option of buying a vast majority of U.S. Sugar's land in the EAA, which would still devastate communities around the lake. It stems from a 2010 agreement with U.S. Sugar to sell its land. If the U.S. Sugar plan falls through, the bill's final stipulation would require the state to give $50 million per year for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

The EAA Farmers group believes there are other options to consider. Last month, the SFWMD proposed a plan to use deep injection wells to dispose of the excess lake water. 

"We do want to be a part of the solution but we want it to be a solution that with solve the problem at the end of the day," said Schlechter. "We have our faith in God and we are going to do what we do as it comes along."

Debate over SB 10 will begin in earnest next month, when the legislature opens its annual session.