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Dean Johnson reviews MAR Hot Topics: Moving Water

Moving Water:  The Everglades and Big Sugar

Today, we think of the Everglades as Florida’s crown jewel. It wasn’t always so – early Floridians looked at the vast river of grass (the famous phrase coined by Marjory Stoneman Douglas in 1947) as a swamp and wanted to reclaim the land for other uses such as farming, cattle-raising and development.

That didn’t happen, but the ‘Glades have suffered numerous indignities over the centuries. The giant natural wonder was the subject of Wednesday’s League of Women Voters Hot Topics as author-journalist Amy Green discussed her book “Moving Water: The Everglades and Big Sugar.”

Green said that the Everglades may never again be pristine – as they were when Ponce de Leon first set foot in Florida – but that ongoing restoration efforts are focusing on key functions, such as preserving the drinking-water supply, working on water-storage projects, dealing with invasive plant and animal species.

“It will take a while,” she said, mentioning that the Everglades is something almost all Floridians agree should be protected.

Green said she got “smitten” with the Everglades and its plight after she interviewed Mary Barley, who had taken up her own restoration campaign after her millionaire developer husband George was killed in a 1995 air crash. Orlandoan George Barley and his wife had established the Everglades Foundation, and when he was killed, George was on his way to Jacksonville to meet with the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss Everglades restoration.

Mary Barley picked up on the cause, taking on government, politics and Big Sugar, the sobriquet attached to the acres and acres of sugar farms near the ‘Glades (a source of major pollution). The plan was to make Big Sugar pay for restoration via a tax, along with state and federal monies.

Green’s book is essentially the story of the Barleys’ spearheading the battle to save one of the state’s most valuable resources, a paragon of biodiversity. The author said hers is a playbook that others can use to pursue environmental and conservation goals.

As to what we citizens can do, she said we should be vigilant and know what our state and federal officials are up to. Also, each person can explore her nutrient-pollution footprint, looking at what our lawn fertilizers and our farming chemicals are adding to the waterways. Green said that the League could also advocate for the 1996 ballot initiative that taxed Big Sugar but hasn’t been fully put into place over the years or back a proposal to have 100% clean energy by 2040, a bill that has been proposed but never brought before the full Legislature.

Green said that Ron DeSantis, our current governor, has been more environmental-friendly than Rick Scott, his predecessor. One of DeSantis’s first acts was to replace all the members of the South Florida Water Management District with folks who were more environmentally minded. DeSantis also wants the 2021 Legislature to deal with sea-level rise.

Interviewing Amy Green at Hot Topics was Gabbie Milch, outreach and education coordinator for the nonprofit St. Johns Riverkeeper.