Judge Refuses to End Pollution Oversight in Everglades

“No.” The last holdouts on Rick Scott’s South Florida Water Management District governing board had gone years without hearing this answer from any authority, but things in Florida are different now. On Monday US Judge Federico Moreno denied their request, made essentially on behalf of Florida sugarcane growers, to end federal water quality standards in the Everglades.

SFWMD argued that the sugarcane industry no longer needs federal oversight to ensure it isn't polluting the Everglades

Called the consent decree, a deal brokered 27 years ago when the federal government decided state agencies were letting the sugarcane industry dump its pollution into public lands and a national park, the standard has never been met. Not even after taxpayers spent more than $1 billion building filtration for the industry’s runoff, and tens of millions every year since to operate that system. (Florida lawmakers voted in 2016 to pass the industry’s cleanup costs on to the public.) That didn’t stop SFWMD from arguing that the sugarcane industry had done enough for the Everglades, and it was time for federal authorities to start looking the other way.

Moreno disagreed. It didn’t escape his notice that the request came hours after the governor’s race went to a candidate who openly opposed sugar-friendly water policies. Or that by the time his decision was due, most of the board had already resigned, accused of corruption and specifically working on behalf of sugar companies against the public interest.

Moreno’s decision might have been no different if Adam Putnam, called out as US Sugar’s errand boy by the man who lapped him in the primary, had become governor as planned and left the SFWMD leadership in place. Then again, the board might not have rushed to get the sugarcane industry out of the consent decree, and the judge might not have wondered aloud what the hurry was all about.

And would conservation groups have bothered publicly petitioning Governor Adam Putnam to support keeping the standard? Bullsugar was proud to stand with a host of organizations asking Governor Ron DeSantis to oppose the now-resigned board’s attempt to kill it: Calusa Waterkeeper, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Earth Jurisprudence, “Ding” Darling Wildlife Society, Florida Conservation Voters, Florida Defenders of the Environment, Florida Division of the Izaak Walton League of America, Florida Wildlife Federation, Friends of Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, Friends of the Everglades, Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, Lake Worth Waterkeeper, Martin County Conservation Alliance, Progress Florida, and Sierra Club.

Change happens slowly. Sometimes glacially. Many refer to the consent decree as Big Sugar’s only real loss in the Everglades, and it happened a generation ago. Since then Florida’s water management crisis has only gotten worse: the state has virtually no enforceable pollution standards, Lake Okeechobee is regularly feeding toxic blooms on both coasts, the Everglades are starving for clean freshwater and Florida Bay is collapsing… and yet things are different now.

Key elections hinged on sugar vs. water. Our toxic blooms are the subject of congressional testimony and legislation. The US Army Corps is is talking openly about changing the way it manages Lake Okeechobee. And more important, they’re asking for our input.

Public Meetings

Please don’t pass up this opportunity to be part of the first real change after decades of stagnation. If you can, please come to one of the Corps’ public meetings. Details are here, including how to submit comments by email.

And if you’re on the Treasure Coast, you’re welcome to attend a community briefing on Saturday with Congressman Brian Mast, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Bullsugar about the 2/19 meetings in Stuart (details here.)

This week’s decision to continue to hold the sugarcane industry to federal pollution standards is part of something bigger: the acknowledgement by government institutions that Florida’s water management is causing harm and needs to change.

Bullsugar supporters can claim an impressive share of the credit for that admission–and for this rare chance to change the fate of Florida’s waters. Thank you.