Not everyone agrees that Big Sugar's been falsely accused

[ Up ]
By: Mark Perry Special to the News
November 18, 2003

Do the Sugar farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) really understand they are farming in the environmentally sensitive area from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades? If they have understood this, then why for years and years have they continued to send polluted water into both the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee?

Mr. Coker of U.S. Sugar Corporation, in an opinion piece in the Nov. 12 News, tried to explain that it is "not fair" to make sugar farmers the "scapegoat" for water problems in Lake Okeechobee and in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. What is fair goes way beyond "shared adversity," which the sugar industry never shared. We must all understand the big picture and what needs to happen for real restoration of the Everglades and South Florida's ecosystems so here are some facts to ponder:

The water, which now piles up in Lake Okeechobee and then flows out east and west polluting our coastal estuaries, used to flow south into the EAA, which was the "River of Grass" (sawgrass, one foot deep in water) before it became vast sugar cane farms.

Since the 1930s the sugar industry has blocked this "river" and caused the diversion of South Florida's fresh water to be dumped into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico at a rate of 1.7 billion gallons per day.

Lake Okeechobee is used by the sugar industry for water supply irrigation and the four major canals leading south from the Lake are maintained drainage to provide water-table levels that benefit the sugar growers. If there is too much water, the South Florida Water Management District lowers the canals; if not enough water, the canals are filled for supply for the farms.

The 213 drainage basins and 289 permitted structures in the EAA insure proper water-table levels for the sugar industry.

The sugar industry will produce 2.1 million tons of sugar this year, another record crop. This will be the 5th year in a row at record production for sugar while South Florida has gone through severe droughts and major flooding events.

The madness continues as we pay, through federal tax dollars, over $100 million each year to buy the surplus sugar forfeiture under 18 cents per pound and pay the sugar industry to store the sugar for us. They also hold import quotas low so they don't have to compete with the world market price, around 8 cents per pound.

More "facts" include the pollution from sugar in the EAA, which has been in court battles since 1988. The water flowing south from the EAA has been recognized as polluting the Everglades with 150 to 200 parts per billion phosphorous for years. (The Everglades is normally at 10 parts per billion).

The Everglades Forever Act in 1990 required the agricultural industry in the EAA (through Best Management Practices (BMPs) and the State (South Florida Water Management District and DEP) to clean up the pollution by December 2003. The State was required to build 6 Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs) to clean up the polluted water from the EAA and the BMPs were voluntary.

In 1996 the voters of Florida also passed the "Polluters Pay" amendment to the Florida Constitution, which was never enforced by the Legislature. This year the Everglades Forever Act was amended by the state to provide a "long-term" plan for the cleanup, now set for 2016 and 2026. The amendment also allows the nominal agricultural privilege tax to count for and nullify the "polluters pay" constitutional amendment.

This year's amendment to the Everglades Forever Act also provided an additional $400 million for a total of $ 861 million of taxpayers money. It will be spent on the STAs, to clean up the EAA pollution!

The fact is, we should buy the sugar industry lands in the EAA and restore it to the River of Grass, allowing the water to slowly flow south, naturally cleaning up on the way to entering the Everglades.

This would provide for Everglades' habitat restoration, lower levels and a healthier Lake Okeechobee, natural recharge of the thirsty South Florida drinking water aquifers and no polluted freshwater discharges to the coastal estuaries.

This plan has been reviewed and scientists proposed it at the beginning of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, but it was shot down by the engineers and sugar industry.

Of all the 50 construction components in the Plan, it currently provides only for the purchase of the Talisman property in the EAA. The Talisman property is the 50,000 acres purchased in 1999 with $130 million of public funds to be used for water storage. Since the Water Management District wasn't ready, all those acres were leased back to be farmed by sugar.

We now should demand that the District immediately terminate the lease and use this public property for water storage. This part of the EAA, the Talisman property, cost us $ 2,600 per acre. Its market value from the EAA property appraisal is $ 3,500 to $ 5,000 per acre. Even at $5,000 per acre, the entire 550,000 acres would be $ 2.75 billion, not "tens of billions" as Mr. Coker stated.

If we are planning to commit major money and effort to restoring the Everglades, we should look to restoring the natural system and hydrology. The River of Grass is being blocked and we need to restore the "river" flow to the Everglades. Nature does a much better job at managing the water than we do and in Florida, water has become the critical issue.

Let's all work on understanding the facts surrounding the issues and the solution can be found.

Mark Perry is executive director of the Hutchinson Island-based Florida Oceanographic Society.