Sugar Back-Pumping Increases Dike Failure Risk

With weeks left in the 2017 hurricane season, and open speculation about how long the Herbert Hoover dike can hold back a rising Lake Okeechobee, how can the sugar industry possibly justify adding to the danger by back-pumping billions of gallons of water off their fields?

Dry Fields in the EAA, September 16. Photo by Adam Dubbin/Save Florida Waters Now.

Never mind whether it’s legal to risk the lives of thousands living in the shadow of the aging dam…how is this even human?

The South Florida Water Management District quietly stopped back-pumping yesterday. It’s tempting to call it an attack of conscience, but there simply may not have been any more water left to dump into the lake. Sugarcane fields were dry and EAA canals were already low last Saturday, when all of Florida was watching Hurricane Maria and wondering how much more destruction was on the way.

So while people from communities hardest hit by Hurricane Irma were finally allowed back to check on their houses, and many–especially south of Miami and in the Keys–were finding out they no longer have houses…

…and people on the Gulf coast were wading through contaminated floodwater to rescue what they could…

…and people in Glades communities are waiting for the next evacuation order, hearing yet again about how their homes stand in the shadow of one of the most vulnerable dams in the country

…the sugar industry was busily adding their runoff to the rising water, apparently unconcerned about straining the dike, unconcerned about prolonging the discharges, unconcerned about exposing riverside communities to untreated pollution and deadly toxins, unconcerned about its neighbors altogether. (Although industry executives did find time to generate some free publicity in the communities it was endangering at the time.)

How is SFWMD’s letting sugar’s billionaires drain their properties into a rising lake not reckless? Or unethical? Or criminal?

Water managers might claim Irma’s rainfall gave them little choice, but that’s not entirely true. In an emergency like Irma, the district can require the sugar industry to keep water on their fields. They didn’t. Just days after the storm their properties were pumped out and the rain they got was already lapping against the dike or blasting down the St. Lucie.

The lake is still rising. The Army Corps says even with the locks to the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee wide-open Lake Okeechobee will swell to 17 feet. Would holding rainfall on 450,000 acres of sugarcane fields instead of back-pumping it into the lake have made the difference? Not likely. But contributing the six inches that fell on the EAA to the water levels already stressing the dike, putting thousands of lives at higher risk for the sake of a better sugarcane crop, is at best profoundly wrong.

There are so many inspiring stories of Floridians heroically stretching themselves to help their neighbors through this brutal time. This is not one of them. It turns out there is no situation where the sugar industry won’t prioritize its own profit margins over human health and safety.