Is Sugar Framing God for Our Water Crisis?

Finding a scapegoat to take the rap for a crisis is nothing new, but it takes moxie to throw God under the bus. Florida’s sugarcane industry makes it look easy.

Scene from the Toxic Summer of 2016

Lake Okeechobee is filling up fast. Discharges to the estuaries start tomorrow. Coastal businesses are staring at another Lost Summer or Toxic Summer… but somehow the blame doesn’t fall on water management officials who kept the lake high all winter, or the sugarcane executives that ordered them to. Somehow it’s an Act of God.

Earlier this spring, when water was being stockpiled in the lake, it was God–by way of evaporation–who didn’t leave enough in Lake Okeechobee to keep the freshwater-starved Caloosahatchee healthy. The lake was still overfull while the river’s salinity was unbalancing the whole estuary out to the gulf, but somehow state agencies and the Army Corps couldn’t be blamed for hoarding water for sugarcane irrigation. The sugar industry’s share was still there in the lake, but God had let the Caloosahatchee’s share evaporate.

When the exact same thing happened last year, the lack of rain was an Act of God. Again, there was plenty of water for sugarcane to produce near-record yields, but God held back the Caloosahatchee’s share and created conditions for a plague of red tide.

Then when the wet season began and sugar operations pumped billions of gallons of runoff into the Everglades last summer, killing and starving animals to keep the crop on pace for another huge year, it was God’s fault for sending too much rain, not leaving enough room for sugar runoff.

Then came the hurricanes. They didn’t damage the sugarcane crop much–last year’s yield approached historic highs–but they created the temptation for the industry’s largescale insurance fraud. The reasoning: if God hadn’t sent the storms then sugarcane executives–with help from Rick Scott and Adam Putnam, who got generous cuts–could never have claimed they needed $380 million (more than half the value of the crop) from the federal government. If this is a crime, does that make God an accomplice?

And if too much or too little rain is ever leftover after sugarcane gets what it needs, and the estuaries and beaches are slimed or choked, and Florida’s waterside economies lose billions… the industry says it can’t be blamed; send God the bill.

Sugarcane industry spokespeople are quick to point out that even if their operatives’ water management policies destroy the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee and Florida Bay and the Everglades, the resulting toxic algae and Alzheimer’s Disease, and Parkinson’s Disease, and ALS, and liver failure are all perfectly natural–God made them. And if burning sugarcane for harvest gives people asthma and cancer, the same argument applies: those diseases are natural, too.

But someday soon it might not be so easy to blame God for all this.

The philosophy that nothing can be placed above sugarcane profit and there’s nothing we can do about it is directly challenged by Everglades restoration and the effort to reconnect the River of Grass, because it forces water managers to make choices. Today’s system has so few options, all stakeholders (except for sugar) are at the mercy of the weather — Acts of God take water management decisions out of agencies’ hands. That won’t be true anymore when water can flow south.

When that happens, state and federal agencies will have to explain why they chose to expose people to cancer, or sacrifice our tourist economies, or destroy a National Park to bulk up sugar yields. Then no one will be able to point the finger at God for placing sugarcane above everything else in South Florida.