Big Sugar and the 2018 Florida Election
Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few months, you have probably at least casually been following our water issues effects on this year’s election in this great state of Florida. Let me start by saying that the progress we have seen this year so far has been nothing short of exceptional. For the first time in a generation, Floridians are considering the environment to be a top issue worth voting on. Sure, it’s taken a toxic cyanobacteria soup on both coasts, and one of the most severe red tides in our state’s modern history to get there, but people are finally starting to understand that unless we do something about our water issues – and soon – the things that many of us love most about Florida will likely become just memories of the past. That is huge progress because historically we have chosen to cast our votes based on broader ideological and social issues, and more recently on “wedge” issues which both parties have learned steer us to the fringes of their respective spectrums, a reliable vote they can count on election after election.
Well that is no secret. Our whole country is polarized right now, what’s my point? We have an issue down here that is a little unique as it relates to this election. Let’s talk about big sugar for a minute. Florida is home to a tag team of corporate polluters who are smarter than your average bear. US Sugar and Florida Crystals have built a perfect system for themselves here in Florida. They have gradually gained control our water from Lake O south year after year, election after election, blue wave after red wave. And right now, they control it all. Every year the Army Corps and South Florida Water Management district holds a trillion gallons of water for them in Lake O to irrigate their 800 square miles of fields south of the lake. And when it rains a lot, they get top priority over our drainage system under the guise of “flood control”, immediately pumping every drop of water off those 800 square miles of fields and overwhelming our storage capacity, forcing billions of gallons of polluted Lake O water east and west out man-made canals to our coastlines.
Those huge slugs of fresh water – the Lake Okeechobee Discharges – are devastating to our marine ecosystems and coastal communities, killing just about everything in their path and causing untold damage to not just our environment, but also our health and safety, our economy, and our quality of life on both coasts. And the real kick in the mouth is that water we are wasting by discharging it to places it does not belong is the same water that has been cut off from the Everglades and Florida Bay at the south end of the system, ecosystems that are dying of thirst. The Everglades receive about 1/3 of the water it has historically needed to survive, and aside from being a national environmental treasure, it is it is the source of drinking water for 8 million Floridians, protection from Hurricanes, and is one of the largest economic drivers in the state. And we have basically dammed it off.
So let’s get back to elections. First, they clearly matter. Our elected officials are the ones who make critical decisions on our water policy and projects. Policy dictates who can put what into our water, how it is managed, and where it is sent. Projects give us the ability to get the right quantities of water to the right places at the right times, which is basically the whole point of Everglades restoration. Both components are critical – we need to get the right projects approved and built which will allow us to stop the toxic discharges and send clean water south – and we need the right policy to manage the operation of those projects and keep the water they manage clean and clear of excess nutrients. They work hand in hand, and one does not work without the other. The only problem is sugar has controlled both for decades, and sugar likes things exactly the way they are. And why wouldn’t they? Their perfect system delivers them record crop yields every year in all conditions, no matter how extreme the flood or drought. If we cleaned that water and sent it south, that would mean they would have to start sharing their irrigation supply and drainage system with other parties like the Everglades, and sharing some flood control adversity with our communities, which they don’t have to do today.
They get it all because they are arguably the most powerful special interest in the state, and among the most powerful in the country. There are some smart people in Tallahassee that believe US Sugar SVP Robert Coker may be the most powerful individual in the state, including the governor. Now they may be right or wrong about that, but the reality that it’s debatable is astonishing and speaks to the size of the stick they swing in our state capital. But this is Florida. And he who controls the water, holds the power.
Florida is certainly dealing with its share of environmental issues right now, at the tail end of eight years of Rick Scott as governor. He and the state legislature rolled back every regulation they could get their hands on for nearly a decade, promoting unmitigated development with little to no regard for infrastructure, and now we are seeing the cumulative results of those years of abuse and disregard for long term viability.
But sometimes things just must reach a tipping point for us to start paying attention – so bad we can’t possibly ignore them – and it seems like we might be at that point right now. Three straight years of toxic Lake O discharges and the corresponding algae blooms and red tide have woken us up as a community – we are pissed, and rightfully so. Some of the blame should be cast at ourselves for letting things get to this point without any accountability. We have turned a blind eye to these issues for so long that they have reached a point where we can no longer ignore them. But we did not elect these officials to take money from the interests who ask them to act against our best interest, and we did not give them permission to act against our will as citizen and voters. They seem to have forgotten that they work for us, not the other way around.
So here we are, pissed as hell and demanding a quick fix. That is a good thing. But what we do from here is what matters most. First, the obvious point – we need to vote. If we stay home, we lose. And we need to make sure our friends vote, and our families vote. Not only that, but if this issue is to be addressed – and truly addressed, not just with lip service – we need to vote on the very specific issue of stopping the toxic discharges east and west and sending clean water south to the Everglades and Florida Bay. We need to ask the hard questions and demand clear, concise answers from both candidates for office and office holders. And once we get those answers, we need to hold them accountable for every hour of every day that our broken plumbing is still not fixed, and that the discharges continue. For every minute that the Everglades and Florida Bay continue to be starved of their lifeblood, their fresh water supply from the north.
And remember – when it comes to this issue, the norms do not apply. Both parties are taking money from big sugar. It doesn’t always show up on the campaign reports, because Citizens United has allowed them to hide unlimited amounts of dark money contributions, but it flows into the coffers of both parties and they are happy to distribute it to their respective candidates. We can see some of it, but what we can see is usually just the tip of the iceberg. They are very, very smart, and always play the game three steps ahead of us. It will take an all-out war for us to have a shot at taking our water back, and we need elected officials who understand that, are prepared for it, and have the courage to take on one of the biggest, nastiest, dirtiest special interests in the country – and that is saying a lot these days. They have basically unlimited funds to fight us due to the federal sugar subsidies, and they aren’t afraid to spend big even to win small fights, to ensure that they never have to budge an inch. Historically if a candidate or office holder has had the courage to call them out, they just fund an opponent and wipe them out. They don’t play favorites with party, they pay them both. They run the FL Chamber of Commerce, a republican “pro-business” coalition of Florida’s largest corporations, which is a natural fit for them. And they pour millions into the accounts of mostly republican candidates. And on the other side, Alfie Fanjul is one of the largest Democratic fundraisers in the state.
Beware of candidates that claim to be “good on the environment” but are hesitant or refuse to talk about the specific issue of stopping the toxic discharges east and west and sending clean water south. They avoid words like “sugar”, “agriculture”, and “discharges”. Instead, they keep the conversation broad and focus on words like “pollution” and “clean-up”. Don’t get me wrong, those are important topics, and are critical to address, but if they refuse to talk about the discharges and sending water south in simple and direct terms there is probably a reason. It is entirely possible for a candidate to be a good environmental steward on “easier” issues that require less courage and sacrifice but be unwilling to cross sugar. And where does that leave them? How “good on the environment” can a candidate really be if they are unwilling to even talk about what is unarguably our state’s biggest environmental issue, much less go to the mats with our most powerful special interests to fix it? There are voter guides out there from many parties. Be careful of general environmental voter guides that stick to party lines. Those typically are coming from partisan organizations which are more interested in getting one party in office than addressing this very specific issue. Ask the hard questions, demand specific answers, and remind them of their words constantly until they follow through. Do your homework and form your own opinion.
We have heroes from both parties involved in this issue right now. Things have gotten so bad that it is no longer just an environmental concern. As a human health and safety issue, an economic issue, and a quality of life issue. We need every single advocate that we can get to sign on to this fight, regardless of their reasons for getting involved. If they are willing to show courage, we should do our best to put aside our partisan differences and respect their willingness to take a stand. Water is one of the few issues that should truly be non-partisan as it affects every aspect our lives everyday living in South Florida. Now let’s get out there and vote, and for once vote for candidates over party, and let’s start holding them all accountable specifically on this issue – every candidate, every office holder, both parties. We can’t afford another minute of inaction.