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
• 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
• 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
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"
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
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
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
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.