The Sugar Empire Strikes Back With Spin

I’d written some earlier pieces summarizing the discussions about Everglades water budgets and Lake Okeechobee pollution that were the main topics at the annual Everglades Coalition conference last month in Fort Myers.

Predictably, the chairman of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board and the public affairs director for U.S. Sugar submitted responses after my columns ran in The Ledger and were picked up by environmental news aggregators and circulated statewide. I made some of the same points in earlier blog posts in this space.

I’d like to go over those responses because they get to the heart of the differences between environmentalists and the agency SFWMD has become under the Rick Scott administration and the sugar industry’s fairly consistent position over the years.

First, some quick background for the benefit of those of you who may be new to the issue.

All of the Everglades’ problems are manmade.

They are the result of political decisions made decades ago to dig a massive network of canals to drain former swampland for agricultural development initially and residential development later.

To appreciate the vastness of the marshes, you’d almost have to look at maps of Florida drawn in the 19th century or earlier. I have seen maps that don’t even include Lake Okeechobee, perhaps because explorers didn’t realize there was a lake on the other side of what seemed an endless marsh. Even today you cannot see the lake from some sections of the Hoover dike because of the immense marshes that still surround it.

My first view about 35 years ago of a map of the network of canals in South Florida left me stunned.

This canal system, which included the creation of direct connections between Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie Inlet and the Caloosahatchee River, was constructed despite warnings of respected scientists as long ago as the 1920s and 1930s that they were a bad idea environmentally in the long run.

The eminent botanist John Kunkel Small published a book titled From Eden to Sahara: Florida’s Tragedy in 1929 explaining the potential perils. The book was republished in 2004 by the Seminole Soil and Water Conservation District to re-emphasize his points.

The overdrainage of the Everglades was compounded by the construction of Tamiami Trail and Alligator Alley, which acted as dams to prevent what water hadn’t already been drained to the Atlantic Ocean from reaching Everglades National Park and Florida Bay in sufficient quantities.

In addition, for at least 30 years farmers were allowed to not only use Lake Okeechobee as a source of irrigation water, but were also allowed to pump excess water loaded with fertilizer and pesticides back into the lake. Environmental groups had to file a federal lawsuit to end the practice through a 2014 ruling.

The goal of the current Everglades project is to undo some of the past environmental destruction.

The current fight is over how best to accomplish that goal.

One dispute is the restoration of historic flow south from Lake Okeechobee to the rest of the Everglades. SFWMD recently made of big deal of a project to send some additional water to Florida Bay, but when pressed by journalists acknowledged the amount was minimal in comparison with what’s needed.

Another dispute is over funding. A few years ago the SFWMD Governing Board actually proposed raising their tax rate slightly—their tax rate is capped at one-tenth of what cities and counties can levy—so they could raise enough money to get more done more quickly. Gov. Scott went ballistic and engineered the firing Black Guillory the agency’s then executive director, for fiscal heresy. Scott considers raising taxes a sin, regardless of whether the life of Mother Earth is at risk.

As a result of ant-tax hysteria, bureaucratic intransigence and politics, some people have estimated it could take another 100 years to implement the Everglades plan at the rate things are going now.

Meanwhile, the anti-environmental crowd has launched misinformation campaigns or campaigns of misdirection to attempt to cloud the issue.

Yes, the Everglades was drained to promote agriculture, but sugar didn’t become dominant until after Castro took power in Cuba and the Cuban sugar plantation owners fled to Florida to start over. Their expansion was aided by Cold War-inspired federal price supports that still exist and permissive environmental and labor rules.

That brings us to best management practices. Although SFWMD officials are eager to point out that all farmers around Lake Okeechobee are required to follow them and that it has resulted in pollution reductions, they skip over the part about this not being a true regulatory program in the way other industries are regulated. This is basically a version of Lets Make A Deal. That deal is subject to renegotiation, the latest example is the water bill the Florida Legislature passed a couple of years that gives the Everglades farmers another 20 years to reach their pollution goals.

Perhaps the most confusing issue is how the environmentalists` Everglades restoration relates to the disastrous algae blooms that struck the estuaries downstream from Lake Okeechobee last summer.

The standard line from the anti-environment crowd is that the effort to store and treat water south of Lake Okeechobee to make sure the Everglades gets the water it needs is really just an attempt to help well-to-do coastal residents at the expense of regular working folks in the Heartland.

The algae bloom was caused by the polluted water in Lake Okeechobee that is the result of a variety of factors that include historic backpumping from sugar farms, unfiltered pollution flowing from as far north as Orlando down the Kissimmee River (which was also turned into a ditch at the behest of the agriculture industry and is costing the taxpayers $1 billion to partially fix) and urban pollution from coastal development that includes discharges from septic tanks, sewer plants and stormwater pipes.

Restoring historic water flow to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay and fixing the problems in the Indian River Lagoon, which stretches north of Volusia County, are entirely separate issues.

Don’t fall for the spin.

Posted in Group Conservation Issues.