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As U.S. Sugar quietly expands north of Lake Okeechobee, environmentalists fear Everglades cleanup losing out to farming

U.S. Sugar
U.S. Sugar
Cane fields in the backdrop at U.S. Sugar’s Area 7 site off State Road 621 east of Lake Istopkoga in Highlands County. The sugar grower has leased about 14,000 acres to grow sugar cane in northern Glades and Highlands County. Photos and videos by Joel Engelhardt

By Joel Engelhardt, FloridaBulldog.org

For months environmentalists have whispered that the Legislature’s push toward water storage north of Lake Okeechobee was driven by sugar interests. 

Behind their fear is the belief that an underground water storage method that got $100 million in the two past legislative cycles and is in line for another $50 million this year would do more to help farming than it would to help the Everglades. 

At the same time, U.S. Sugar is expanding its cane-growing dominion, with large-scale production north of Lake Okeechobee. While cane is the dominant crop in the rich muck soils around the lake, in recent years the crop has gained a foothold in the sandier soils to the north.

Permits granted by the South Florida Water Management District reveal that sugar farming is allowed on about 14,000 acres in northern Glades and southern Highlands counties, the Florida Bulldog has learned. The grower leasing the land is U.S. Sugar.

Property records show that in the past 10 years the giant farming interest controlled by a Michigan charity has doubled down on its crop, spending $465 million on land buys in the four counties ringing the lake: Palm Beach, Martin, Hendry and Glades.

The company’s continued growth inflames concerns of environmentalists that U.S. Sugar and other growers are taking advantage of the $23 billion Everglades restoration project to assure a steady flow of water for farming at the expense of Everglades cleanup. 

While the company supports northern water storage, it won’t say if it is applying its well-regarded lobbying might to make it happen and contends that northern storage is good for Lake Okeechobee and has nothing to do with U.S. Sugar’s expansion.

U.S. Sugar gives big to Simpson’s PAC

However, state election records show that a day before Senate President Wilton Simpson grabbed headlines in December by saying he would block a $3.4 billion reservoir south of the lake in favor of northern storage, U.S. Sugar deposited $100,000 into his political committee, Jobs for Florida. 

Senate President Wilton Simpson

Three months later, in his opening remarks to the Senate, Simpson backed off his threat against southern storage. His northern storage bill, SB 1526, sailed through the Florida Senate and House in early April.

In 2017, U.S. Sugar argued against the southern reservoir, helping whittle it down from 60,000 acres of mostly privately owned land to 17,000 acres of mostly government-owned land. 

The company pointed out that Everglades restoration efforts have forced private owners to sell 120,000 acres of rich cane land south of the lake in the fabled Everglades Agricultural Area to the government since the 1990s, reducing the footprint for sugar cane.

By 2008, it appeared all of U.S. Sugar’s privately owned land would follow suit.

Pressed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, the company agreed to sell 187,000 acres to the state in a blockbuster $1.75 billion deal. 

The Florida Legislature played a prominent role in blowing up the deal, which ultimately was squeezed down to 26,800 acres of citrus and cane land for $197 million.

And U.S. Sugar stayed very much in business. 

U.S. Sugar expansion

By 2012, the company began amassing more land, closing on a $150 million deal to buy 14,400 acres in Palm Beach County. Two years later, it added 9,200 acres in Palm Beach County for $128 million. In 2018 it spent $30 million on 2,590 acres in Martin County and the next year, $130 million on 30,000 acres in Hendry County. 

Glades and Highlands counties are highlighted in this map showing two large cane production fields operated by U.S. Sugar.

Those are just the largest land buys since 2012 that add up to an investment of $465 million. Since 2012, when the company owned 160,000 acres according to figures cited in The Produce News, its holdings have grown to about 215,000 acres, as published on U.S. Sugar’s website

But it’s U.S. Sugar’s push north of the lake, combined with the Legislature’s push for northern storage, that have environmentalists on high alert.

While some cane had grown in Highlands County as far back as 2008, U.S. Sugar pulled permits in 2015 to grow 8,372 acres on land northwest of the Brighton Reservation owned by cattle and agriculture giant Lykes Bros. 

In 2020, U.S. Sugar added 2,000 acres to a Lykes-owned cane field in Highlands County at the eastern edge of Lake Istokpoga, raising its sugar cultivation there to 5,769 acres, permit records show.

The fields are not far from U.S. Sugar’s railroad, the South Central Florida Express, giving the Clewiston-based grower an advantage over its largest competitor, West Palm Beach-based Florida Crystals, which does not appear to be leasing cane fields north of the lake.

Critical role of storage

Growing cane in Highlands County and adding farms in the fertile Lake Okeechobee counties, however, has nothing to do with storage north of the lake, U.S. Sugar’s Judy Sanchez said. To compete, the company must grow enough cane to feed its mill, said Sanchez, senior director of corporate communication and public affairs. Growers are thriving with existing water supplies.

U.S. Sugar
A truck filled with sugar cane unloads at a U.S. Sugar rail siding on Old State Road 8 north of State Road 70 near Lake Placid In Highlands County.

“Why would we be growing on land today without water for it?” she asked. “The premise [that cane is behind the push for northern storage] doesn’t make sense.

“This is not about us and trying to make this about us is senseless.”

The idea behind underground water storage, known as aquifer storage and recovery or ASR, is to take water when it is plentiful and squirrel it away underground until it’s needed.

That’s critical in a system that flushes too much rainwater to tide, leaving whole regions parched during drought. And storing water to reduce the flow into Lake Okeechobee during wet season and increase flow during dry is considered critical to regional farming, city drinking supplies and the fight against toxic discharges to estuaries on the state’s east and west coast. 

Supporting the fight to stop those discharges has become a political byword embraced by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Treasure Coast Congressman Brian Mast. It helped then-state Senate President Joe Negron, also a Treasure Coast Republican, push through the southern storage reservoir in 2017, designed to hold and cleanse lake water and send it south to the Everglades.

ASR wells

Like the southern reservoir, ASR wells stood as a major storage piece in the still-far-from-completed, $23 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), authorized by Congress in 2000.

If ASR worked, it would reduce the need for buying huge swaths of land for reservoirs and stormwater treatment areas north of the lake. Pumping water underground would save land for farming and potentially cost far less.

The $2 billion Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan calls for 80 ASR wells in clusters around Lake Okeechobee (circles) as well as a 13,600-acre “water attenuation feature” (in dark blue) and two wetland restoration projects (in green). Recently, officials agreed to move forward without the water feature. U.S. Sugar grows cane north and west of the Seminole’s Brighton Reservation. Photo: South Florida Water Management District

But an 11-year study started in 2003 concluded that CERP’s call for 333 ASR wells would endanger the aquifers. The study recommended limiting ASR to 131 wells.

A 2015 review of the study by the National Academies of Sciences concluded that ASR was “not ready for large-scale implementation” but could be “phased in to help resolve uncertainties, offer some benefits.”

“For example,” the National Academies report stated, “storing and recovering water can change its chemistry, and research on the risks of exposing plants and animals to water that has been stored in the subsurface suggests some cause for concern. A more detailed understanding of the quality of recovered water and potential ecological risks is needed, including the effects of longer storage times and different operating conditions.”  

How northern storage would work

The next year, the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District began drafting the principal vehicle for getting ASR wells underway: the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan. 

It called for 80 ASR wells north of Lake Okeechobee, including 25 wells linked to a 13,600-acre swamp dubbed a “water attenuation feature” that would hold water after heavy rains for days so the inundated ASR pumps could take advantage of the deluge and send the water underground.As the plan moved forward in March, officials agreed to drop this feature, the plan’s primary above-ground component.

U.S. Sugar
U.S. Sugar owns a railroad with a grain elevator just outside of Lake Placid in Highlands County. Cane grown in the county is a 10-minute truck ride from the rail head, which is about 60 miles north of the company’s Clewiston sugar mill.

That feature alone would have required buying 9,300 acres from 73 private landowners and, if completed, cost about $1 billion of the plan’s $2 billion overall cost.

Additionally, two wetlands — the 3,600 acre Paradise Run and the 1,200-acre Kissimmee River-Center — would be restored to help the Kissimmee River, the main artery leading to Lake Okeechobee.

All this could be designed and refined in phases through 2030, the National Academies said in its 2015 report. An ASR Science Plan released in February by the Army Corps and the Water Management District spells out actions to be taken by 2026. 

But the Florida Legislature wanted to be sure.

Senate President Simpson takes the lead

While U.S. Sugar openly supports northern storage, it isn’t saying whether it is involved in the lobbying push that has made it a priority of Senate President Simpson. When asked, spokeswoman Sanchez pointed out that heavy lobbying persuaded legislators in 2017 to speed up work on Negron’s southern reservoir. Now it’s northern storage’s turn.

Sugar companies long have argued that the problem with lake water is the phosphorus-laden water flowing into the lake from the north, not from their farm fields south of the lake. Phosphorus and nitrogen-rich waters lead to toxic algae.

But when water sent underground is brought back to the surface, initial ASR tests showed an unexplained reduction in phosphorus of about 10 percent, a potentially significant selling point in favor of ASRs.

In a February report, scientists propose several steps to understand how and why phosphorus levels decline. 

Additionally, northern storage promises to capture enough water to reduce the controversial Lake Okeechobee discharges to the east and west coasts by 30 percent.

Southern reservoir, fewer discharges

The southern reservoir is expected to cut discharges by 40 to 55 percent, a 2018 project report found.

If the Legislature could speed up construction of southern storage in 2017, it’s fair to do the same for northern storage now, Sanchez said. 

U.S. Sugar
U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez

“We started Everglades restoration at the bottom instead of the top of the system,” Sanchez said. “Now we’ve got to go to the source of the majority of the water coming into the lake because the estuaries need a fix.”

When asked if U.S. Sugar was lobbying for it, she said that was a question for her company’s senior vice president, Robert Coker, but he was not made available to answer. 

But U.S. Sugar’s $100,000 contribution to Senate President Simpson’s Jobs for Florida political committee came on Dec. 7, one day before he declared at a Florida Chamber of Commerce event that the state should stop building the southern reservoir to focus instead on storage north of the lake. 

“The lagoon we’re building south of the lake, which I believe we probably should stop building, would store water and send more water south,” Simpson said at the Dec. 8 Florida Chamber of Commerce Transportation, Growth & Infrastructure Solution Summit. “We would get at least twice the bang for our buck for doing a northern storage rather than a southern storage.”

U.S. Sugar = big $ for Simpson

While Simpson similarly supported northern storage a few weeks earlier at the Florida Chamber Foundation’s Future of Florida Forum, a review of contributions to his political committee revealed that since it began in 2014, U.S. Sugar has been its largest contributor, at $645,000.

Two-thirds of that money came since 2018, when Simpson, a Trilby egg farmer who is said to be eyeing a 2022 run for agriculture commissioner, became assured of rising to the Senate presidency.

U.S. Sugar
Sugar cane growing in northern Glades County on land leased to U.S. Sugar.

Simpson’s threat to the southern reservoir aims to freeze environmentalists who had fought to get that project approved. It meant a move against northern storage could be viewed as the death knell for southern storage.

On March 2, when Simpson addressed the Florida Senate on the first day of session, he eased off the threat. “Much has been said in the last few months about the EAA [Everglades Agricultural Area] Reservoir,” Simpson told the Senate. “Let me be clear, all of the current reservoir projects, including the … southern reservoir, are moving forward and nothing this Senate is proposing would change that.

“We have made significant investments south of the lake, and while I think the order was wrong, restoration is right. … Let us put aside politics and embrace a comprehensive plan for total restoration.”

Sure enough, the $3.4 billion southern reservoir is moving forward, memorialized by an April 22 ceremony featuring Gov. Ron DeSantis to recognize the final federal-state agreement to pay for it. Senate Bill 2516, passed by the Senate April 7 and by the House April 8, was approved as part of the state budget on April 30.

It called for getting the Army Corps involved in the project before congressional approval in the next Water Resources Development Act in 2022. It established deadlines for work to move forward, decreeing that by April 2027 “all feasible ASR systems are operational.” It set aside $50 million for the project, raising the three-year legislative contribution to $150 million.

Water supply increase is in the plan

ASR wells north of the lake are a water-supply solution dressed in Everglades restoration clothing, say environmentalists. And the beneficiaries are farmers, most notably the sugar farmers whose crop dominates the Everglades Agricultural Area and depends on water from Lake Okeechobee, they say.

“First, they do not want any sugar land to go out of production for additional storage,” said Maggy Hurchalla, a longtime environmentalist and former Martin County commissioner. “Second, they want a maximum amount of water stored in the lake so they will be safe from any irrigation cutbacks in a drought year.”

U.S. Sugar
Train car loads of sugar cane heading to U.S. Sugar’s Clewiston mill on an April day on Old State Road 8 north of State Road 70 near Lake Placid In Highlands County.

The Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan lists among its objectives to “increase availability of water supply to the existing legal water users of Lake Okeechobee.” 

That means improving water flow to the 1.8 million-acre Lake Okeechobee Service Area, defined as including the lake and systems that are connected to or receive water from the lake. That means farms. And around Lake Okeechobee, sugar cane is the dominant crop.

The plan would provide “a substantial benefit to existing legal water users within the LOSA [Lake Okeechobee Service Area] by decreasing water supply cutback volumes by 24%,” a key August 2020 report co-written by the Army Corps and the water management district said.

Agriculture consumes more than 80 percent of the water in the Lake Okeechobee Service Area and, with nearly 600,000 acres, sugar cane makes up more than 70 percent of ag in the area.

Can legislators speed up science?

The environmentalists are driven by the belief that no amount of human plumbing can save the Everglades without restoring the ancient southern flow of water from Lake Okeechobee, a move that could prove fatal for the sugar industry. 

“If you’re trying to get to restoration the way to do it is to make the Everglades act and look a lot like it used to,” said Tom Van Lent, senior scientist for the Everglades Foundation, whose lobbying arm pushed for the southern reservoir. “The difference is the EAA [Everglades Agricultural Area]. It’s right in the middle. There’s no way around it. It will determine the fate of the Everglades.”

Thomas Van Lent of the Everglades Foundation

The science behind ASR wells is far from certain, Van Lent said. A bill that mandates completion in six years leaves little room for scientific integrity, he said.

“You can repeal the law of gravity; the Florida Legislature can do that,” Van Lent said. “But it doesn’t change the facts on the ground. You need to work through it. Do the science.”

While proponents say ASR technology is nothing new and is in use in municipal water systems throughout the state, Van Lent counters that the technology never has been applied on such a large scale and that the wells’ ability to hold water free of toxins depends on site-specific geography.

“Maybe everything works out. It might work for this application. It has been demonstrated for other applications. The difference is using it for wetlands,” Van Lent said.

$1 billion above-ground feature dumped

Additionally, just seven months after that report ostensibly finalized the approach for the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Plan, it’s being changed. 

Objections from the Seminole Tribe of Florida to flooding land in northern Glades County resulted in the sidelining of a key component with little public discussion.

In an exchange of letters, on Feb. 24 the Army Corps asked and on March 3 the South Florida Water Management District conceded that it would be fine to move forward without the $1 billion “water attenuation feature,” which called for flooding 13,600 acres northeast of the tribe’s Brighton Reservation. 

Among the feature’s benefits: recreational opportunities that would have helped boost the plan’s tourism profile. But the Seminoles objected, fearing flooding and seepage, harm to sacred sites and limits on future expansion, issues considered in the 2020 report. They would not comment for this story.

The wetland feature is the largest above-ground storage in the plan. Removing it leaves the plan almost entirely reliant on underground storage. 

U.S. Sugar cane north of Lake O

Environmentalists remain skeptical of U.S. Sugar’s denial that its northern farmland wouldn’t ultimately benefit by holding water underground rather than moving it south. Proponents contend the water never will directly irrigate farms.

Ernie Barnett, executive director of the Florida Land Council

“In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t connect those two together,” said Ernie Barnett, an environmental engineer and former South Florida Water Management District interim director who now heads the Florida Land Council, which represents 18 large landowners, including U.S. Sugar. “ASR has always been a central part of restoration.”

But in a debate fed by decades of distrust, environmentalists expect the unexpected.

“When you can get a project that might reduce the discharges by 30 percent and give you a water supply and let you avoid what the real answer is — that is the sale of land — and the taxpayers are going to pay for it, of course that would be your choice to the solution for the discharges,” said the Sierra Club’s Cris Costello.

“It has nothing to do with Everglades restoration,” she said. “It has everything to do with holding on to water so it can be used for water supply.”

An underlying fear is that all that underground water eventually could be made available to its nearest neighbors — farmers.

U.S. Sugar
A truck carries cane on State Road 621 east of Lake Istopkoga in Highlands County en route to a U.S. Sugar railway siding for transport to the grower’s Clewiston sugar mill. 

“Those places that do have ASR wells will have ready access to irrigation. And there is a lot of ag moving up there that needs a guaranteed irrigation source,” Hurchalla said, referring to U.S. Sugar’s entry into Highlands County. “Whatever lands are immediately adjacent to ASR wells will have the best chance of benefiting from the wells.”

U.S. Sugar dismisses any such outcome.

“With all of the major development and growth in the 5,000-square-mile basin stretching from Orlando through the Kissimmee chain of lakes to Lake Okeechobee — attempting to make this about farming in general or sugar cane in particular is ridiculous,” Sanchez said.

“Yes, we bought land because you can’t grow food without land.”

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Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years as a reporter and editor at The Palm Beach Post before departing in December. His website, focused on news of Palm Beach Gardens and northern Palm Beach County, can be found at OnGardens.org.

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