Water Should Be Above Politics. Why Isn’t It?

Hurricane Michael reminds us there are more important things than politics. But as we also know, natural and man-made disasters are politicized too, including this hurricane and the recently authorized EAA Reservoir, which passed the Senate yesterday 99-1 as part of the WRDA bill.

The results of 50 years of politics-as-usual are washing up on Florida's beaches

Bullsugar and supporters like you have spent years fighting for the EAA Reservoir, first co-founding the “Now or Neverglades” coalition to generate the political will that enabled Joe Negron’s bill, then by bussing hundreds of people from the Treasure Coast to Tallahassee to walk the halls of the state capitol, then by publicizing the dangers of state legislators and the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) shortchanging the design of the reservoir, using every tool we had, none more important than independent science.

At the beginning, the sugarcane industry hated the EAA Reservoir. We got to see firsthand how they operate. A firehose of misinformation, lobbying, and PR was delivered like a shock and awe campaign. Astroturf groups coordinated with SFWMD governing board members to spread disinformation, descending on West Palm Beach and son Tallahassee. Political pressure was applied to Republican and Democrat politicians alike, and both parties had heroes and villains.

With your help we won passage of the bill, but at great cost. In the end, Big Sugar gave a nod to compromises designed to turn the EAA reservoir legislation into their Trojan Horse: more drainage and irrigation to boost sugarcane production, little capacity left to cut discharges or help the Everglades. The EAA Reservoir plan that emerged is much less than we or even Senator Joe Negron envisioned when he called for 40,000 additional acres of storage treatment marshes. Experts remain very concerned about the design, especially with the lack of treatment capacity. So yesterday’s passage of WRDA should not be taken as an unalloyed victory. Far from it.

We learned two indelible lessons from the EAA Reservoir experience:

1) Big Sugar will never be a willing partner in any version of  Everglades Restoration, except when projects closely conform to the industry’s profit models. For 50 years they have been hostile to the goals of the coastal and environmental communities and never really cared about downstream communities, including the water resource needs of the Miccosukee Tribe. They won’t be willing partners because their idea of shared adversity refuses to acknowledge the human health risks, economic damage, or ecological destruction–including the legacy pollution of Lake Okeechobee which they used as an open sewer–required to engineer their unlimited drainage and water supply.

2) We can take on Big Sugar and have a fighting chance…when we come together to create political will, and when we have a specific solution and a political champion as we did with Joe Negron. When we are divided or we lack a champion, we lose every time.

Where can political will be found now, and what does it look like?

Political will is a chicken and egg: yes, it requires courageous politicians, but it also takes informed, engaged voters who will reward champions and punish charlatans on election day. Counteracting the sugarcane industry’s disinformation campaigns requires citizens to think for themselves and work together to support efforts like Bullsugar’s to hold politicians accountable.

One thing political will does not look like, is the hyper-partisan bickering on social media–as TCPalm reported on in a recent podcast–which hands Big Sugar a most valuable gift: no-cost gridlock.

We can stop a decades-old water crisis in its tracks if voters take the time to understand Big Sugar’s corrupting role, and  vote the issue–vote clean water–instead of continuing to allow bought-and-paid-for candidates on both sides to slip in and keep the status quo.

The future of our water should be above politics, but the political will needed to defend it demands a lot from voters. Breaking through the corruption and gridlock that turned our water toxic won’t be easy. But it will absolutely be worth the fight.