Angry About Florida's Ruined Waters, Fishermen Unite Against Big Sugar

Fishing guide Mike Conner putters his skiff across the Indian River Lagoon near Stuart, about a two-hour drive north of Miami. He used to bring clients from all over the United States here to stalk delicious pompano, yard-long snook, and the Holy Grail of inshore fishing: sea trout longer than 30 inches. Today the lush seagrass flats that once formed an underwater Serengeti are gone. Instead, Conner peers down through the shallows at a barren underwater desert — only sand, as far as he can see.

Conner, now 60, simmers with a controlled rage as he turns the skiff around, back toward the boat ramp in the Saint Lucie River. On the way, it smells like rotten lettuce as the water suddenly changes color from a delicate green to a dank wall of burnt coffee. This brown mass is the source of Conner's anger.

"I would say it's the worst environmental crisis ever in the state," he says of Florida's nasty water problem, "and I think it's the 11th hour right now."

Lake Okeechobee has been severely polluted with phosphorus and nitrates.

tweet this

Though the seagrass beds and his home waters have been deteriorating for decades, the summer of 2013 was a turning point, as pollution-induced algal blooms transformed the estuary into a human health hazard. "The fishing was horrible," Conner remembers. "The water was crummy. The warning signs were on the docks: 'Don't contact the water.'" The water grew so foul that boat captains and small business owners refer to that period as the "lost summer." When Conner lost 35 fishing charters over two months — $13,000 of income — he was irate.

The cause of all this disgusting water was, in a nutshell, plumbing. Lake Okeechobee has been severely polluted with phosphorus and nitrates from a century of farming and development around it. Under normal circumstances, in the rainy season, water is supposed to overflow the lake and move south, through the "River of Grass," and give life to the Everglades. But vast acres of sugar farms just south of the lake, and the communities of people who operate them, stand in the way.

To protect that land — called the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) — from annual flooding when Lake O fills up, the Army Corps of Engineers sends massive amounts of the polluted water through rivers that run east and west to Florida's coasts, regardless of the damage it does there. Two companies — U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, together called "Big Sugar" — own the bulk of the land in the EAA. Environmentalists have long suggested that the state purchase this land to restore natural water flows, and now fishermen are joining the chorus and making the same demand. But the companies have resisted, while also mastering the dark art of political influence.

The lost summer of 2013 was particularly wet and therefore particularly deadly to the seagrass and the critters on whom Conner's livelihood depends. "My dad taught me that if I believe in something, do something about it," he says. "Don't just bitch. I can't stand complacency. That drives me nuts — people walking around with their head in their ass, watching too much reality shows, then they complain about something."

At a meeting where officials were discussing Lake Okeechobee discharges, Conner confronted a representative of the Army Corps, which controls the water flows. He presented an invoice for the income he had lost.

"I want you to take it to the top," Conner remembers saying. "I want to be reimbursed. I'm out the money." The Corps rep promised to run it up the chain of command. Two weeks later, Conner says, he received an email saying sorry, but because of its flood control mission, the Corps was not responsible for his loss. "So I went on TV with it and publicized it," he says. "I had Channel 12 come out on my boat. I was a lone wolf then. But I wanted to set an example that way. The next year, guys started to think about how things were affecting their wallet."

Three years later, this winter's wet El Niño weather has made things far worse. In a normal year, the Corps sends 92 billion gallons of Lake Okeechobee water into the fragile waters near Conner's home. This year, the agency blasted through that mark in the first four months, and the rainy season still lies ahead. "This may not stop until next winter," Conner says.

On both Florida's east coast (near Stuart) and the west (by Sanibel Island), fishing guides are losing business, paddleboard shops are shuttering, real-estate agents are losing deals, and vacationers are canceling trips as brown water envelops the estuaries where the rivers pour into the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico.

It's having an unusual political effect: Normally conservative Southwest Florida voters are lining up with tree-hugging environmentalists. Fishermen are organizing against politicians whom they see as concerned about corporations instead of the common good. Both the blue-collar and the rich are pissed off.

In the early 1960s, Mike Conner's dad landed a dream job as a football coach and teacher at Coral Park High School and moved the family to Miami from Pennsylvania. They lived two blocks south of the Tamiami Trail. By age 7, Conner was catching snook and redfish in Florida Bay, a passion that would determine his career as both a fishing guide and a magazine editor for Florida Sportsman.

In high school, he and his brother would put their redbone coonhounds in the back of the truck, pop in some Southern rock, and run the dogs at night in Big Cypress National Preserve, following their baying through the ancient trees. "The Everglades was our playground — we loved it! It was just the heyday of the Glades," Conner says.

Conner's family wasn't far behind pioneers who had radically altered the Everglades. In the late 1800s, a litany of mustached real-estate tycoons had tried to drain the land and get rich selling soggy farmland. (New York wanted winter veggies!) Eventually, a 47-mile dike was built to hold back Lake Okeechobee, and nascent farming towns — Belle Glade, South Bay, and Pahokee — popped up just south of it.

The dike was a success — until September 16, 1928, when a hurricane tore through and ruptured it, sending a wall of water south and killing 2,500 people, mostly poor black residents, making it the second-deadliest natural disaster in the nation's history.

That forced the federal government to step in. Over the next 20 years, the Army Corps of Engineers completed the massive, 143-mile Herbert Hoover Dike along the southern shores of the lake and permanently T-boned the Everglades' flow. Now engineers could keep farmland below the lake perfectly irrigated and safe by sending immense Lake O summer discharges east through the Saint Lucie River toward Stuart and west through the Caloosahatchee River toward Fort Myers and Sanibel Island. The dike was like an open-for-business sign below the lake. Farming exploded.

From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, other massive changes were being made throughout the Everglades' ecosystem from north of Lake Okeechobee and south to Florida Bay. Engineers totally reshaped the Kissimmee River, making it straight instead of meandering. Highways like I-75 and Tamiami Trail cut across the state, blocking water that would otherwise flow south. The Miccosukee were granted rights to swaths of wetlands in the middle. Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park were established. Development raged everywhere.

"Don't just bitch. I can't stand complacency."

tweet this

Meanwhile, on an island 90 miles south, two little boys — Alfy and Jose "Pepe" Fanjul — grew up like princes as their family dominated Cuba's sugar industry. But when Fidel Castro in 1959 overthrew corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista (to whom the Fanjuls paid bribes as a "cost of doing business," Alfy once recalled in a Vanity Fair profile), the bearded leader's forces, armed with machine guns, marched into the Fanjuls' family home and seized the dynasty's property. The Fanjul brothers made it to the States with enough money to buy 180,000 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee and do what their family did best: harvest sugar. Castro's rise to power also prompted a U.S. embargo on Cuban sugar, and soon cane production in the upper Glades shot up 400 percent.

Later, the Fanjuls would found Florida Crystals and Domino Sugar and set up residence in tony Palm Beach. Earlier in the century, in 1931, Charles Stewart Mott, an original U.S. partner in General Motors, bought a bankrupt sugar company and turned it into the U.S. Sugar Corporation. Eventually, these two families would own 400,000 acres south of Lake O. They would become the dominant force in U.S. sugar production, and the industry would emerge as the biggest reason to keep Florida's plumbing as is, regardless of the destruction it wreaked on the coasts.

As development continued, the Everglades was dying. Lack of fresh water, high-nutrient loads from agriculture, and encroaching suburbia were strangling this one-of-a-kind ecosystem. Only over time did authorities begin to realize that a century of modern engineering hadn't improved Florida, but ruined it. Marjory Stoneman Douglas's pivotal 1947 book, The Everglades: River of Grass, helped change attitudes, as did the onset of the environmental movement in the 1960s.

Though it was a massive undertaking to please various stakeholders, plans were eventually made to reverse the damage. In 2000, Gov. Jeb Bush, President Bill Clinton, scientists, and even representatives from the sugar industry devised a master plan: the $8 billion, 30-year Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project (CERP). It consisted of 60-plus projects aimed at reestablishing clean freshwater flow south of Lake Okeechobee and breathing life into the River of Grass.

CERP noted that to fix the ecosystem, large reservoirs would be needed to store and control water before sending it south. The plan didn't specify buying the land from Big Sugar — though many people have proposed it as the solution. "If we want to reconnect Lake Okeechobee with the Everglades and alleviate the discharges going east and west, we need to have land south of the lake to build a reservoir to store water," explains Dr. Stephen Davis, wetland ecologist for the Everglades Foundation, an environmental group. "Without that storage, we just can't make that connection with the lake."

After being stored in said reservoirs, the water would flow through surprisingly effective Storm Water Treatment Areas (STAs) — large expanses of wetlands that don't look like much to anyone driving by but are actually sprawling marshes full of hard-at-work plants such as bulrush and hydrilla, which remove phosphorus and clean the water before sending it south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay.

Without reservoirs south of Lake O, many doubted whether CERP would work. Then, in 2008, Gov. Charlie Crist announced a massive deal: The state would buy U.S. Sugar out — land, facilities, everything — for $1.8 billion, fair market value at the time. That would give the state a patchwork of 187,000 acres in the EAA.

Environmentalists were jubilant. "We were thinking that was it!" Davis remembers. Even U.S. Sugar officials described the deal as a win-win-win: for the state, for the environment, and for U.S. Sugar shareholders and employees.

But that fall, Wall Street collapsed. A massive recession hit. The bottom fell out of the state's budget. In the end, the deal was slashed to 26,800 acres for $197 million.

"That was a big blow for us when we lost that deal in 2008," fishing guide Conner laments.

U.S. Sugar stayed in business. The key reservoir was never built. Still, all was not lost: The state hoped it might be able to come up with money after the economy recovered and retained options to buy various sections of land at later dates. Deadlines were set.

But Gov. Rick Scott has had other ideas.

When Governor Scott ran for office in 2010, it was on a platform of pro-business deregulation. Once in office, he put the fox in charge of the chicken coop.

Immediately, Scott replaced members of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), which determines the state's Everglades policy, with his own picks: agriculture executives, attorneys, real-estate execs, and civil engineers. After attending a secretive, off-the-books, all-expenses-paid hunting trip to King Ranch, a Texas hunting lodge run by U.S. Sugar, Scott appointed Mitchel A. "Mitch" Hutchcraft, who manages King Ranch's Florida agriculture interests, to a seat on the SFWMD board.

That wasn't all. Scott banned the phrase "climate change" in state offices. He appointed a shipping executive to be secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. When a DEP wetlands expert refused to approve a permit she said violated the law, she was suspended (though later vindicated). Scott also nixed a statewide septic tank inspection program in 2012; four years later, massive fish kills related to septic tank leakage filled bays near Melbourne with so many dead fish it looked possible to walk across their ballooned bodies. Enforcement of DEP water-quality cases has dropped almost 90 percent during Scott's reign.

Last October, one of the deadlines on the Crist deal — the option to buy 46,000 acres — was about to pass. Conner and other conservationists hoped for a purchase, but Scott's SFWMD declined, claiming it would distract from other CERP projects. The final opportunity to buy the land — all of the land — expires in 2020. U.S. Sugar has proposed a 43,313-acre superdevelopment, replete with condos, hotels, and retail smack dab in the middle of it. Fishermen see it as a horrifying bargaining chip that potentially raises the property value and thus a cost to taxpayers if the state does finally buy it.

Frustrated with Scott and the Republican-led Florida Legislature, environmentalists went straight to the people in 2014 with a proposed constitutional amendment that would specify that $500 million a year in real-estate taxes be used specifically for conservation and land purchases. Fishermen were thrilled when Amendment 1 passed with 76 percent of the vote — now maybe here was the money to buy the sugar land! Instead, under Scott, most of those funds were diverted to salaries and other projects.

"All the oyster bars are dead. All the grass is gone."

tweet this

The Fanjuls are generally more low-key than U.S. Sugar but have their own brand of influence, a "cost of doing business." Their companies employ an army of no less than 50 lobbyists exerting leverage in both D.C. and Tallahassee and spent more than $1 million on lobbying efforts in 2014, according to OpenSecrets.org. Privately, Florida politicians say the Fanjuls' lobbyists are polite, even nice. They don't argue if you disagree with their agenda; they simply shake your hand and funnel $200,000 to your opponent.

One of the reasons Big Sugar needs so many tentacles tickling politicians is to maintain the 1981 Farm Bill, repeatedly renewed in Washington. The bill (which enrages fiscal conservatives) guarantees sugar prices for the corporations, set at sometimes twice the price of the world market. If global prices drop, the fed gives Big Sugar loans that the companies pay back with sugar, not money. The feds then sell that sugar, really cheap, often to ethanol plants. Though the financial gain to Big Sugar fluctuates, it has in the past worked out to about $65 million a year for the Fanjuls and $55 million a year for the Motts.

In short, taxpayers help keep sugar corporations afloat and pay an elevated price for sugar at the grocery store. AEI, a conservative think tank, recommends that American sugar production decrease in order to keep Big Sugar from costing taxpayers money. On the other hand, lots of other countries protect their sugar industries with subsidies and tariffs, and without sugar production, already poor communities such as Clewiston, Belle Glade, and Pahokee would be in dire straights.

Critics oppose Big Sugar at their peril. Ray Judah claims the industry masterminded his political downfall. Judah — a graph-loving science geek — had helped save the endangered spotted owl and old-growth forests as a grad student at Humboldt State University in California. After settling in hyper-red Florida, though, he ran as a Republican in order to win, resulting in a 24-year stint as a Lee County commissioner.

Judah was the sole Republican who stood by Charlie Crist when he made his deal with U.S. Sugar to buy the land south of Lake Okeechobee. In retaliation, Judah says, in 2012, "U.S. Sugar funneled money into [political action committees] that funneled money into other PACs that ended up sponsoring posters that were put in peoples' mailboxes twice a day for two weeks. There were radio commercials. They even ran TV commercials during the Olympics." That sort of spending was previously unheard of for a county commission seat.

U.S. Sugar spokesperson Judy Sanchez told the Naples Daily News at the time: "We tend to support candidates who understand agriculture and support its issues. Ray Judah did not understand agriculture and support its issues."

The Fanjuls, meanwhile, helped fund Marco Rubio's U.S. Senate run, foiling Crist's Washington dreams. When Rubio announced his run for the presidency last August, he walked offstage and into the open arms of Jose "Pepe" Fanjul, who has hosted $42,500-a-head fundraisers for the failed candidate (far more than the average annual salary in Pahokee). Rubio will say that federal sugar assistance is about food security: The nation is not safe without massive amounts of sugar, because losing production would cede power to Brazil.

On February 19, as black Lake Okeechobee water enveloped Sanibel and Fort Myers Beach, a crowd of about 300 very angry folks gathered at the Bass Pro Shops in Fort Myers. Some arrived in camouflage clothes with gun racks on their trucks; some came in matching cardigan sets; others were from the Sierra Club. Though a mix of Republicans, Democrats, and independents, they all wanted answers — and Rick Scott's head on a stick.

This was the first meeting of Captains for Clean Water, a nonprofit group started by fishing guides Capt. Dan Andrews and Capt. Chris Wittman, who had witnessed the waters they grew up on around Sanibel drastically deteriorate. "There were areas in the 1980s that were crystal-clear six feet deep with lush turtle grass and labyrinths of oyster bars," Wittman says. "That is just unheard of now. All the oyster bars are dead. All the grass is gone."

When they began posting about the disaster on Facebook, their posts would receive as many as a million views in a week. People who didn't know much about Everglades hydrology but were seeing black water and dead fish were hungry for action. Wittman remembers, "Pretty much everyone here, whether a fishing guide, a shelling guide, a hotel, a restaurant — everyone here lost money with this last discharge because of the time that it hit [in high season]. February, my business was down 80 percent," he says.

A crowd of about 300 very angry folks gathered at the Bass Pro Shops.

tweet this

The captains consulted with scientists to figure out what they could do. Soon their mission became clear: They needed to pressure politicians to buy the sugar land south of the lake. "I haven't found any scientist who doesn't think this is absolutely necessary to have storage south of the lake," Andrews says.

"Moving water south to the Everglades and Florida Bay is not going to fix everything," Wittman adds, "but it's going to be the single biggest thing and most feasible solution where we can actually see positive change."

Though "environmental regulation" is usually a dirty phrase on the Republican national platform, Wittman relishes the mix of people uniting for cleaner waters. "We've got developers and business owners standing side by side with green activist groups," he says. Florida's Republican leaders traditionally ignore liberal environmentalists, he says, but pay attention when there's a grassroots movement of outdoorsmen who typically vote red.

"Now, all of a sudden, you're seeing liberals and conservatives all pissed off together," Wittman says with a grin. "Captains for Clean Water sends a message that the citizens are watching. If you don't do the right thing, you're not going to have a job very long." His group set up a website with a database making it easy to contact politicians as well as a roster of studies on related issues. It also raises money to conduct economic impact studies.

On Florida's east coast, a similar group, Bullsugar.org, was finding a vast new audience as well. As Lake O discharges, prompted by the wet El Niño, roared eastward, Bullsugar.org's Facebook followers doubled and now approach 100,000. At a news conference in Stuart in February, they gathered 250 or so fishing guides and angry business owners.

A friend of Conner's, Capt. Mike Holliday, took the mike with the fire of a football coach rallying his team. "What we're looking at right now is the single largest habitat destruction in the history of Florida. And it's happening during tourist season in an election year. And that's created the perfect storm. So I'm here to say, there's a public storm of outrage, and it's coming after you, Rick Scott!" Roaring applause.

Conner began volunteering with Bullsugar, helping the group throw events and connecting the members with other fishing guides. The nonprofit's plan of attack is to register voters, launch an education campaign, and, borrowing from NRA methods, rate Florida politicians based on whether they take contributions from Big Sugar and whether they support buying EAA land south of Lake Okeechobee. They may ultimately endorse candidates and have registered as a lobbying organization, so they might run into their Big Sugar buddies in the halls of Tallahassee.

So far, the two parallel campaigns seem to have struck a nerve. Bullsugar's incessant social media campaign has become so effective that U.S. Sugar launched a counter-attack, running full-page ads in regional newspapers explaining how the company is not the main source of Lake O pollution (true, but ignoring the idea that U.S. Sugar is blocking southern water flow to the Everglades). The company has bombarded local papers with editorials calling Bullsugar.org members "extremists."

Two mysterious, anonymously written blogs have cropped up as well. Wellington Ledger, a Tumblr account, denounces the Bullsugar group as "environmental terrorists" and the blog Southern Exposure, southernexposed.blogspot.com, blasts headlines like "Shady Enviro Puppet Group Led by Odd Cast of Characters." These blogs paint the founders of Bullsugar as rich phonies who look down on farmers, and depict Captains for Clean Water as foolish hipsters. U.S. Sugar denies any involvement with those blogs. The Fanjuls could not be reached for comment.

On its website, U.S. Sugar is defensive, writing, "We share in the frustration over the Lake Okeechobee discharges... " but "mean-spirited attacks... misdirect the focus away from any meaningful discussion of the facts that will lead us to real solutions. That these radicals are blaming a single company, U.S. Sugar, for systemic regional problems wrought by over 100 years of change is utterly ridiculous."

U.S. Sugar says the focus should be not on the purchase of its land, but on several of the CERP projects that have been identified as priorities by a mix of politicians, scientists, and farmers. The company points out that Governor Scott has proposed a dedicated stream of $5 billion in funding for these projects over 20 years — a move that even environmentalists have welcomed because funding has been irregular in the past. U.S. Sugar says that, beyond this, the government could create reservoirs north of Lake Okeechobee, deepen existing reservoirs south of the lake to increase storage, and fix the Herbert Hoover Dike so that extra water could be held in the lake instead of released. Anglers and environmental groups counter that storage north of the lake would still end up in their estuaries and that fixing the dike is about safety, not greater storage.

Asked for a response to fishermen whose livelihoods have been ruined, spokesperson Sanchez said, "There's no question the releases are frustrating, which is why we support solutions that will reduce the frequency in the need for the releases to occur."

Still, reverberations from the anglers' uprising are reaching politicians. U.S. Rep. Curt Clawson, a Tea Party poster boy, actually broke ranks in March and introduced the Everglades Land Acquisition Act, which would set aside $500 million in federal money for the land purchase. Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo is taking meetings with fishing guides, and Sen. Bill Nelson, who previously accepted campaign donations from Big Sugar, said recently to the Naples Daily News: "Bottom line is: We need to send more water south into the Everglades, and it needs to be clean. One way to do that is by getting the state to use Amendment 1 money to acquire more land south of the lake."

South Florida is not safe from this imbroglio — it's downstream. Tourism is based on clean water, especially in the Florida Keys, where it represents 60 percent of the economy. Miami fishing guide Benny Blanco takes clients to the Keys and Florida Bay, where the Everglades fades into salt water. Last summer's drought, coupled with the chronic dearth of freshwater flow from Lake O, caused spikes in salinity in Florida Bay. A few months ago, Blanco pulled up to his favorite seagrass bed. It was gone, replaced by mud. "It was the most disgusting thing I've ever seen in my life," he says. All told, 50,000 acres of seagrass died just off Flamingo, and biologists fear ensuing algal blooms.

If you drive along the southern rim of Lake O today, you'll see the massive shoulder of Herbert Hoover Dike looming above, holding the lake back, sloping down to small concrete shacks, the town of Pahokee — mold-stained mobile homes, train tracks, and industrial farm warehouses. Beyond town, miles and miles of cane fields sprawl like massive green tiles — rigid, mono-cropped, perfectly regimented, as if the interior of the state had been turned into a colossal machine. This was once an aorta to the wild Everglades. Now it's a town with 14 percent unemployment as sugar harvesting becomes more mechanized. Cane smoke rises on the horizon, and a tractor passes with a young man driving. What will he do for work if all of this sugar land gets turned to marsh?

On a national level, CERP projects are moving along as funding is cobbled together — bends have been restored to the Kissimmee River, and bridges that will let water flow under the Tamiami Trail have broken ground. Fishermen are split on which candidate to support for president: They're wary of Clinton, who has ties to the Fanjuls. Yet Trump could coddle Big Sugar to stick it to Mexico's growing sugar industry. He's also reportedly flirting with Rick Scott for veep.

And the rains continue. Daily summer downpours will spew Lake O's fecund load to the sea, leaving Florida Bay to grow warmer and saltier, creeping toward a potential algae-bloom Armageddon.

On a recent afternoon, Mike Conner rolls down the window, cranks up some Southern rock, and accelerates onto I-95, heading from Stuart down to Islamorada. When he hits Key Largo, he'll pop in some Jimmy Buffett for that Keys vibe, the barefoot fantasy that seduces hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. In his pocket, he has a new business card: "Mike Conner, Director of Angler Outreach, bullsugar.org."

Conner is the nonprofit's newest employee, tasked with being a Johnny Appleseed, using his old Rolodex from his days as a fishing magazine editor to rally national fishing manufacturers to the cause. They need Florida to remain the "fishing capital of the world," and Conner needs to get them pissed off. He's setting up presentations all over the state. His audience tonight in Islamorada: tackle store owners, Monroe County officials, and fishing guides with families to feed.

Conner drives on, PowerPoint presentation at his side. He's got memories of what Florida once was. He's got a war to wage. He's got a grin on his face.