Your View: The fight for Miami’s freshwater is happening now

The most important vote in recent history involving sea level rise in Florida already happened. You may have missed it, and if you did, you’d be glad to know that the voters chose correctly.

But of course, there’s a catch.

“The people have spoken, and the leaders are ignoring the people,” South Miami Mayor and FIU biology professor Philip Stoddard told The New Tropic at an environmental rally in support of Amendment 1 last Saturday. “The science is unified on the need for clean water, and the only way that can happen is with more land for Everglades restoration,” he said.

These are the brass tacks of Amendment 1. In November 2014, “Florida voters recognized that conserving land is a top priority for our environmental and economic health,” noted Dawn Shirreffs, Senior Everglades Policy Advisor of the Everglades Foundation.

But while it’s true they did, that doesn’t mean lawmakers actually give a damn.

Passed at the end of last year, Amendment 1 “was overwhelmingly approved by the largest number of voters who have ever passed a constitutional amendment in the state,“ said Shirreffs.  The feat was impressive, with a resounding 75 percent of voters — remember, this is Florida —  supporting the water and land-buying initiative. The money would come from an existing tax on new real estate sales, which means no tax increases. Currently, there are $773 million that the legislature can decide what to do with, and for the first time in 23 years, lawmakers ended their usual session without voting on a budget. This dire situation led to a 20-day special session that began on Monday, June 1.

The Florida House has suggested $10 million be spent from the Amendment, while the Senate has called for a mere $2 million. It’s a gross disconnect between the voters’ will and the the will of politicians.

Arguments from all sides are complicated, but key activists such as Shirreffs and Stoddard agree that the acquisition of land for conservation is seen as the most important next step.

Why does land acquisition matter? “Storage of water is what we are missing,” explained Shirreffs, and in order to store and treat the water we need land.

There was a massive parcel of 48,600 acres of land south of Lake Okeechobee put on the block for the state’s purchase by U.S. Sugar, but the purchase never happened for reasons that remain somewhat unclear. The legislature didn’t provide the necessary funding and now U.S. Sugar is claiming they have the right to take the sale off the table, despite the agreement to hypothetically sell being in place for another few months. Big Sugar is now trying to sell the state land to the north instead — not a great solution to help South Florida’s parched Everglades and Florida Bay. Unfortunately, it’s worthless sitting at the negotiating table with Big Sugar if you don’t have the cash. Which is why the outcome of Amendment 1 is so important.

So how does land acquisition affect sea level rise?

“The only plan we have,” Shirreffs said, “is having freshwater continuing to flow south to have a head to push back on that saltwater intrusion.” Every intelligent Miami-is-drowning think piece about sea-level rise includes a discussion about the dangers of saltwater contaminating the aquifers. According to Shirreffs, if saltwater enters an aquifer,  the water is not allowed to be used for consumption for 100 years.

If nothing is done, saltwater intrusion will contaminate our freshwater, making South Florida unlivable. Water must be siphoned south from Lake Okeechobee, and we need to control the massive flow. Billions of gallons of water are currently being wasted because there is nowhere to store the overflow, which should be used to keep freshwater flowing south. Our most logical solution for keeping the freshwater flowing is to acquire the land leading from Okeechobee to the Everglades. It’s A+B=C. This is our best plan, and there’s money for it, but it’s being politicized and could be cannibalized by politicians with other agendas.

The fact of the matter is, we are wasting fresh water. Buying land would alleviate that, as well as providing a solution for storing, filtering and keeping water clean in the future. If the seas rise, this would be our first and most crucial problem.

People in Miami, and South Florida in general, are now in a near constant conversation about sea level rise, but it often seems like there’s very little that the common citizen can actually do. This may be one of those moments when there’s a chance to make things better.

Reach out to the Governor. Find your State Senator. Contact them any way you can. (Twitter, if they have it, is particularly effective because it most likely goes straight to their personal phone.) Tell Joe Negron you support him supporting this. Here’s his twitter. Tell Senator Thad Altman, another supporter, that you want this money to go towards land purchases.

Senator Hayes, the chair of the committee, who thinks the state owns enough land, might want to hear you think differently (not sure he looks at his Twitter). Tell him you don’t think the legislature should spend this money on existing state expenses after you and millions of other voters mandated that money should be used to improve the environment.

And make sure to remind them that the natural beauty of your home state will suffer irreversibly if something isn’t done. Anyone on the front lines of this conversation, as well as anyone living near natural habitats, can tell you about the potential horrors that could ensue.

“If the state doesn’t buy more land for CERP [Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan],” said Maggy Hurchalla, activist and former five-term Martin County Commissioner, “my river, my estuary, and the southern end of the Indian River Lagoon will be irrevocably destroyed. That’s not the wording of wild-eyed environmentalists. It comes from the IRL [Indian River Lagoon] report by the Army Corps of Engineers.”

“I’ve dived 100 feet down in Blue Spring in North Florida,” she added. “Those springs won’t be blue anymore if we don’t buy land to protect them.”