www.baltimoresun.com/topic/sfl-everglades-restoration-legislation-fight-20130306,0,4562296.story

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Big Sugar, environmentalists clash over Everglades cleanup requirements

By Andy Reid

Sun Sentinel

3:53 PM EST, March 6, 2013

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One day into Florida’s legislative session, environmentalists and Big Sugar are already squaring off over proposed changes to Everglades restoration requirements.

Audubon of Florida Wednesday was rallying opposition to measures that the environmental group warns would help Big Sugar avoid paying more of the multi-billion-dollar-cost of Everglades restoration.

Also, Audubon argues that Big Sugar-backed changes to state law would make it difficult to force agriculture to clean up more of the water pollution that flows off farmland and into the Everglades.

Audubon of Florida Executive Director Eric Draper called it a “very troubling bill” that would be a “complete giveaway to sugar.”

Big Sugar contends that the environmental opposition is off base and that agriculture already pays its fair share of Everglades restoration costs.

The proposed changes to state law are intended to clear the way for a new Everglades restoration plan – endorsed by Big Sugar and environmental groups alike – and wouldn’t stop the state from pursuing more pollution cleanup requirements on agriculture, according to U.S. Sugar Corp. spokeswoman Judy Sanchez.

“It does not do any of the things that Audubon is out there screaming about,” Sanchez said.

The proposal comes as Florida pursues a new restoration plan aimed at jumpstarting help for the Everglades and settling years of federal court battles over failures to meet water quality standards in the famed River of Grass.

The new $880 million restoration plan pushed by Gov. Rick Scott calls for building new stormwater storage and treatment areas along with other improvements over more than a decade.

That price tag goes up to $1.5 billion total when factoring in $700 million already spent on farmland and unfinished reservoirs from past sidetracked Everglades restoration projects.

Legislative changes are needed to “sync up” the new Everglades restoration plan with state law, Sanchez said.

But Audubon warns that the proposed changes in the House version go too far. The group supports the Senate version.

Audubon objects to suggestions in the House legislation that growers’ existing “best management practices” are doing enough to reduce the influx of polluting phosphorus. The environmental group contends that the proposed legislation could nullify attempts to add cleanup requirements for farmland.

Audubon also opposes the legislation keeping the Everglades restoration cleanup tax levied on growers south of Lake Okeechobee at the “current minimal level” of $25 per acre through 2025.

Environmental groups blame agriculture for causing most of the water pollution in the Everglades and have called for the state to force growers to pick up more of the restoration tab.

“With mounting costs to the public for cleaning up the Everglades, the sugar industry is not even covering the interest,” Draper said.

Big Sugar counters that it is paying more than its fair share for restoration.

Growers in the Everglades Agricultural Area have paid more than $200 million in special taxes toward restoration efforts and are meeting phosphorus reduction goals by changing farming practices.

Sanchez said Audubon is trying to “stir up” its members and that the draft legislation is “too early” in the legislative process for Audubon to be “trying to throw roadblocks.”

The issue goes before the House State Affairs Committee Thursday.