How Much Cancer is Too Much?

Sugarcane growers added to the failed legacy of “shared adversity” with their role in June’s Everglades flood. But is it realistic to expect the industry to voluntarily sacrifice to protect wildlife or tourism or even public safety?

Today the sugar industry has total control of South Florida’s water and drainage. They opposed EAA reservoir legislation, designed to protect all stakeholders in floods and droughts, because sharing protection also means sharing control and adversity. Right now sugarcane has all the protection it needs–perfect growing conditions in all weather and steadily rising yields since 1980. Even in the worst years, sugar faces no real adversity.

But everyone else does:

  • This summer it’s Everglades wildlife drowning in high water and sugarcane runoff

  • Last summer it was millions along the St. Lucie exposed to toxic discharges linked to cancer and neurological diseases

  • Earlier this year the Caloosahatchee bounced from toxic discharges to lethal salinity levels in a matter of weeks

  • Florida Bay still isn’t getting enough freshwater, even when so much rain falls that FWC warns “there may be nothing left to save” of the Everglades unless water is drained…just not to the canals that feed the bay

  • And without that flow, saltwater intrusion into the Biscayne Aquifer (Miami’s water supply) now extends beneath 460 square miles of land

“Shared adversity” isn’t a new idea. It’s been central to the Army Corps’ Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule (LORS) discussions since 2000. SFWMD called for shared adversity in 2011 when conditions were so dry the lakebed caught fire. Water managers let Florida Bay turn saltier than the ocean that summer. But still sugarcane growers got all the water they needed to boost yields by double-digits (see chart below).

 Another great year for sugarcane as water-starved Florida Bay collapses

Sugar is always last in line for adversity, which means they get water when it’s dry and drainage when it’s wet. They don’t want to share water, drainage, or adversity–that’s why they fought and continue to fight so hard to stop, delay, and shrink the EAA reservoir.

Thanks to the heroic effort of many, the EAA reservoir is law. But sugar’s aggressive lobbying has shrunk its footprint and its ability to reduce adversity for everyone else. Shouldn’t the sugar industry shoulder a fair share of the sacrifice going forward? Especially now that we know the Lake Okeechobee discharges carry toxins dangerous to humans? Rethinking priorities brings up important questions:

First, how much cancer is too much? Now that we know toxic discharges to the estuaries are linked to fatal diseases, eliminating them should be a priority. Clearly a higher priority than maximizing sugarcane yield.

Second, how much is Everglades National Park and Florida Bay worth? And the St. Lucie? And the Caloosahatchee? And the inshore and coastal fisheries destroyed when freshwater is diverted from estuaries to irrigate half a million acres of sugarcane, or when billions of gallons of runoff are discharged to drain those fields? The FWC says recreational saltwater fishing is worth $7.6 billion a year and 109,000 jobs. The USDA says the sugarcane crop is worth less than $600 million. Shouldn’t water management decisions balance their impact on Florida’s economy?

Third, how much are Florida’s beaches worth? More than a million Floridians work in our  $89 billion tourism industry. Are sugar yields worth more than the cost of “guacamole algae” and “black water” to coastal economies? This isn’t a philosophical question, it’s math. We just need the numbers.

More Numbers We Need

Our media and lawmakers deserve real numbers from SFWMD to answer last week’s questions: Exactly how much water did the district pump off sugarcane fields last month? estimated up to 173 billion gallons. SFWMD’s Randy Smith allowed that 9 billion went into the lake. How much of the remaining 164 billion went into the Everglades? And exactly how much phosphorus was in it? Smith insisted the back-pumped water was “fairly clean” in this interview–after initially saying it was cleaner than the lake in this one. A report showed phosphorus concentrations of 400ppb flowing off EAA fields this week – 40x the Everglades limit. Why isn’t the district citing actual numbers?

Accounting for exactly how much drainage and how much water we all get, tracking how it affects our health and safety–and our economy–and doing it in the open where the public can follow the discussion will go a long way toward making South Florida’s water management system work fairly for all of us, sugar growers included.