Bigger sugar fight brewing

Sugar industry leaders speak out against calls by officials on Florida's east and west coasts to redirect floodwaters from Lake Okeechobee in the direction of state's sugar cane field to the south

For more than a decade, sugar farmers south of Lake Okeechobee have been changing their ways to improve the health of the Everglades. Now it’s time for other landowners within the lake’s watershed to make changes, too, said Robert Coker, senior vice president of public affairs for U.S. Sugar.

A U.S. Sugar Corp. sugar mill in Clewiston on Nov. 4.

Photo by Tracy Boulian, Bonita Daily News

A U.S. Sugar Corp. sugar mill in Clewiston on Nov. 4.

As the Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management district continue to direct polluted overflows from Lake Okeechobee through the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, sugarcane farms are under sharp scrutiny. Leaders on both coasts, where the lake’s murky waters are destroying estuaries and fisheries, have been pressuring the corps and the district to direct the water south instead, onto sugar fields.

Coker said the sugar industry has done its part to clean up its operations. He said delivering lake water to the south now would only ruin the progress the industry has made.

“There is no question that the east and west coasts are suffering,” said Coker, during an interview at the Bonita Daily News office. “But to take this system which we spent 15 years (to build) ... we’ve now got this system going south working pretty good. To take this water, even if you could, and discharge it down here, you’re going to kill the Everglades.”

Lee County leaders point to the sugar industry’s history of environmental manipulation, through drainage of wetlands and excessive fertilizer and pesticide application, as the root of today’s problems. The lake is polluted by agricultural run-off and its water level is too high because of its inability to overflow south in rainy years the way it did a century ago.

County officials said the sugar industry should take the brunt of the burden and accept the lake’s water on its land now.

As a temporary fix during this dry season, the industry could contain lake water on its farms until it evaporates, said Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah and Wayne Daltry, director of Lee County Smart Growth. That way the water would not pollute the Everglades.

Over the long-term, Daltry and Judah said, more stormwater treatment areas need to be built to allow more water to flow south to the Everglades.

“The way the sugar lands area south of the lake is being managed, they are acting as a dam to what was the normal flow of water to the south,” Daltry said. “Our estuary is not designed for the water to come from the lake. It’s surely not designed to take the dirty water coming from the lake.”

More than 100 years ago, wet season rains regularly swelled Lake Okeechobee and sent sheets of water coursing south through the sawgrass swamps of the Everglades. Settlers in the early 1900s, however, decided to drain almost half of the lake and the marshes around it out to sea to make room for sugar farms and citrus groves. To tame the water further after hurricanes in the 1930s and 1940s led to deadly flooding around the lake, the Army Corps of Engineers built canals to connect the lake directly to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

The engineering feat, which involved building a 34-foot-tall dike around the lake, allowed agriculture to prosper, provided fresh water supplies for urban areas on the east coast and protected communities around the lake from floods.

It also did tremendous damage to the Everglades and eventually led to a flurry of lawsuits in the 1980s that culminated in the 1994 Everglades Forever Act.

Under the act, sugar growers south of the lake were required by law to reduce the amount of fertilizers they used, treat water flowing from their farmlands by directing it through approximately 100,000 acres of man-made filter marshes, and pay a yearly tax of $25 per acre.

“Forty-thousand acres of our land was taken from us, they put a tax on us to pay for it — which is pretty novel in America, but we agreed to that,” Coker said. Sugar farms in the agricultural area comprise about 450,000 acres.

After perfecting the water flow and filtration systems south of the lake, the sugar industry isn’t willing to muck up its works to bring temporary relief to the rivers.

Coker said water needs to be stored north of the lake and to the east and west. Projects are in the works to do just that, but they’ll take several years to complete. Meanwhile, Coker said, he wonders why everyone looks south to a working system for a temporary fix.

“You have four parts to this. Why are you focusing there (south)? That’s the only place where everything we tried to do in the last 15 years is in harmony. Water quality and water supply are in harmony here today,” said Coker, pointing to a map of South Florida. “The problem is this area, this area, and this area (north, east and west) have not had the intense scrutiny that this area has had.”

In the best of weather conditions, about 15 percent of the lake’s overflow drains south, said Kurt Harclerode, spokesman for the South Florida Water Management District. Under extremely wet conditions, like this year, little to no water drains south because the stormwater treatment areas, or STAs, south of the agricultural fields don’t have the capacity to treat more water.

“To just go out and flood the fields that have been used for farming for decades, you would certainly have the chance of having adverse environmental consequences,” said Harclerode. “The STAs are full right now. That’s one of the problems we have sending water south.”

Lake Okeechobee is dirty because it receives run-off from farmlands and urban areas throughout the Kissimmee River basin. In the past the sugar industry would also flood its fields and then pump the excess water back into the lake. That water was laden with fertilizers and pesticides.

Although sugarcane farmers today use more environmentally friendly methods of fertilization and pest control, the land is still saturated with chemicals. Water picks up the pollutants and if they cannot be filtered out, they’ll harm the fragile Everglades.

“A lot of people are looking at sugar as a quick fix. I don’t think it really holds the promise that some people would like to see,” said Harclerode. “On a first blush of that idea, it doesn’t look like that would be a solution to the Caloosahatchee estuary.”

Lee County leaders said they want the district to take more than a glance at the idea of flooding the sugarcane fields.

Judah said the water management district needs to calculate how long it takes for a foot of water to evaporate from the fields so water can be stored this dry season without affecting the Everglades. Any additional storage, he said, would take some of the burden off the Caloosahatchee River.

To bring the lake to 14 feet by the beginning of the rainy season, it needs to be drained more than 2½ feet. To bring the lake down 1 foot, a foot of standing water would have to be released over 467,200 acres.

Part of the lake lowering will occur through evaporation during the dry season, but until the water body reaches 16.25 feet, the Caloosahatchee River will receive about 48,600 gallons of dirty lake water per second. After that, the releases will slow to a pulse schedule.

Coker said the sugar fields, even those that were ripped up by Hurricane Wilma, are still being harvested. The few fallow fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area are either planted in rice or already flooded to maintain the soil, Coker said.

Coker said the sugar industry uses 450,000 acre feet of water (1 acre foot equals about 326,000 gallons) to irrigate its fields every year. If the fields were flooded, he said, there would be no need for irrigation. Stacking the water higher than a foot won’t work because that amount of water would not evaporate fast enough, Coker said.

He said Lee County leaders who suggest flooding the sugar fields are reacting out of emotion rather than reason.

“There is no good solution for Fort Myers out of this,” said Coker. “There is no scientific, no engineering basis for that. It is only an emotional response and a political one.”

Coker also said Lee County needs to look in its own backyard. He said he has not seen the county impose on itself the same stringent water quality standards the Everglades Forever Act imposes on the sugar industry.

He said the county also doesn’t pay the same $25 per acre agriculture privilege tax that the sugar industry pays.

Judah said Lee County is paying a heavier price than the sugar industry. In addition to watching the environmental degradation of the Caloosahatchee estuaries, county taxpayers send $38 million to the South Florida Water Management District for a system that is causing them harm, Judah said.

“Basically it’s for a drainage district for the sugarcane owners,” he said.

The water management district and the corps admit their system doesn’t work well when the weather is too wet or too dry. But the agencies are trying to fix the problem for the long term by building more water storage and more water quality standards into the system.

Parts of the Everglades restoration work, which encompasses the lake and the Kissimmee River watershed that flows into the lake, also involves cleaning up the water before it reaches Lake Okeechobee. The projects that target the northern part of the lake will take more than five years to complete. The entire restoration will take more than a decade and $10.5 billion.

County leaders also criticize the restoration plan because it does not account for extremely wet years and it still keeps the sugar fields dry.

“The district has not really thought this thing through, and when you consider $10.5 billion being spent and still not addressing the problem with maximum flow to the estuaries, that’s a great concern. That’s why it goes back to utilizing sugar cane,” Judah said. “That’s where the historic flow used to go.”

Daltry said long-term plans should look more toward converting water flow south and phasing sugarcane production out of the Everglades Agricultural Area. Until the farms stop acting as a dam, he said, the problem with Lake Okeechobee will persist.

“We’re already drawing the conclusion that sugar is going away. Why then do we sustain the destruction of the two estuaries for the last few years of the sugar industry?” Daltry said.

Coker said the sugar industry is thriving and investing more money into its factories. He said the industry will stay for the long-term.

Daltry said he doubts that. He said he fears the sugar farms will become subdivisions.

“See at the end of the year if they tell their board of directors that they’re losing money,” Daltry said.

Lee County officials are continuing to press the issue of minimizing the water releases into the Caloosahatchee by flooding sugar fields instead. County commissioners have prepared a letter to Gov. Jeb Bush, asking him to declare an emergency, repay the county for environmental and economic damages caused by the releases and find an alternative way to lower the lake.

The commission is expected to approve the letter today.

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