Florida sugar workers are the latest to come out strongly against Joe Negron’s Senate proposal to create a $2.4-billion, 60,000-acre reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee for Everglades water storage.
In a joint letter sent Wednesday from Sugar Labor Management Committee, IAMAW District 166, Florida State Council of Machinists, and Local 2152 (Osceola & Okeelanta), union representatives expressed “strong opposition” to Senate Bill 10, which seeks to purchase private sugar industry land for storing Lake O runoff.
On Tuesday, the Florida Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation unanimously passed the bill, one of Negron’s top priorities, which gives the South Florida Water Management District until Dec. 2018 to purchase land from “willing sellers” in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) for a water storage reservoir.
The union letter was addressed to SB 10 sponsor Sen. Rob Bradley, signed by Frank Ortis of the Sugar Labor Management Committee; John Walker, representing IAMAW District 166; Florida State Council of Machinists president John Gall; and Edward Garcia, president of Local 2152.
About the land grab, union reps say: “Simply put, this bill is a job killer which would put hardworking men and women in our union on the unemployment line and is a serious threat to the economic health of the Glades-area communities where they live.”
If the state cannot find enough willing sellers, SB 10 provides for the exercise of a 2010 option to buy 153,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land.
That option, the union letter says, “would have devastating impacts on our members, who are employees of both U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, among other agricultural companies.”
The union letter also comes on the heels of another objection from 14 EAA landowners — U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals among others — which firmly stated they are “not willing sellers of their property to the government.”
The 6-0 committee vote — the bill’s first Senate stop — also drew the ire of former North Florida Congressman Steve Southerland, chair of Stand Up North Florida, a group vocal in its opposition to the Bradley-Negron plan.
“Today’s committee meeting made clear that the interests of North and Central Florida are being ignored. There is no way that the Negron-Bradley Plan outlined in SB 10 does not negatively impact North and Central Florida, as it sets up for billions of dollars to be spent in South Florida on a single project while leaving North and Central Florida’s taxpayers holding the bag,” Southerland said in a statement.
Southerland, a Panhandle Republican, notes that as a fellow North Florida lawmaker, Bradley “should have firsthand knowledge of the needs we have for important restoration of our lakes, rivers, springs and beaches that will be hampered by sending even more of our limited conservation funds South.”
The Bradley-Negron plan would take money for the land purchase from a $100 million bond of the Land Acquisition Trust Fund — created in 2014 through amendment one — which comes from state real estate transactions. The plan will require $1.2 million between 2017-19. According to South Florida Water Management District Executive Director Pete Antonacci, current land values in the EAA are an estimated $11,000 to $13,000 per acre.
Southerland said that South Florida received more than 94 percent of Land Acquisition Trust Funds allocated for water projects last year.
“In order to protect the waters of North and Central Florida,” Southerland says, “these and other dollars should be equitably shared across the state, rather than having a majority of funds dedicated to one region or area.”
The union letter concluded with an urge for Bradley to visit Everglades communities and “speak directly to our members and others who would be harmed by your bill.”
And if the Bradley can’t fit in such a visit on a schedule, union members — angry that EAA farmers are being made “scapegoats” in a “self-serving political agenda” — would be happy to travel to Tallahassee for a face-to-face meeting.