Time for Sugar to Clean Up its Own Pollution?

Mark Perry of Florida Oceanographic Society says this all better than we could. Scientists estimate that the Everglades reservoir plan needs another 6,500 acres to work properly, and the sugar industry warns any expansion better come from public land. This is after Florida turned 60,000 acres into filtration for the industry’s pollution and invested billions to help it meet legal requirements. Despite some Florida lawmakers’ push to extend corporate welfare to billionaire sugar families, more people are asking whether it’s finally time to wean the industry off public assistance.

Dead grassflats scoured bare by discharges to the St. Lucie River. Photo by Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch

Make Agriculture Clean Water on its Own Land South of Lake Okeechobee

By Mark Perry (reprinted with permission, first appeared in TCPalm)

Discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee totaled 832 billion gallons in 2017. The majority of those discharges, 650 billion gallons, went east and west causing massive environmental destruction to the northern coastal estuaries: the St. Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon and the Caloosahatchee River. 

Billions of gallons of precious freshwater resources were dumped to the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. Of the 182 billion gallons of lake water that went south, the Everglades Agricultural Area used 142 billion gallons for irrigation and only 39 billion gallons went south to the Everglades. 

Historically, all of the water from Lake Okeechobee used to flow south to the Everglades as a “River of Grass,” 112 miles long, 35 miles wide and 1.5 feet deep. The river flowed slowly south from the lake, taking about 16 months to reach Florida Bay. 

The sawgrass of the river took up the nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen), and the clean, freshwater finally mixed with the ocean saltwater of Florida Bay. This was one of the most productive estuarine environments on our planet, a thriving nursery for abundant aquatic life. It must have been absolutely beautiful.

Due to major hurricane flooding in 1928, the government built a dam around Lake Okeechobee to stop the flooding (which stopped the River of Grass) and built channels to direct the water east to the St. Lucie estuary and west to the Caloosahatchee estuary instead of south to the Everglades.

The 700,000 acres just south of the lake became the Everglades Agricultural Area where the private agricultural industry, primarily sugar cane, controls the water for their irrigation — keeping the crops dry and land drained for perfect conditions resulting in a profitable harvest. 

The runoff water from the EAA basin is huge and has high amounts of phosphorus. Several decades ago, the state of Florida bought 57,000 acres in the EAA and built stormwater treatment areas, which are manmade marshes, operated to take out the phosphorus before it could go south to the Everglades. 

The state has spent over $1.8 billion on the STAs and millions each year to operate them to clean up the EAA basin runoff. In fact, we as state taxpayers are spending an additional $880 million on “restoration strategies” to expand the STAs just to meet the water quality standards for discharging the EAA basin runoff water to the Everglades.

From May through October 2017, about 418 billion gallons of EAA basin runoff went through the STAs, while only 7 billion gallons of water from Lake Okeechobee were treated on the way south to the Everglades.

Since 1995, the state’s STAs have treated 5.7 trillion gallons, with only an average of 10 percent coming from Lake Okeechobee and 90 percent from EAA basin runoff.

Now we are trying to build the EAA Reservoir project, as called for in Senate Bill 10, to store and treat more water from Lake Okeechobee. 

Well, perhaps we should use the state-owned and operated lands, including the stormwater treatment areas, to treat our state water from Lake Okeechobee — and tell the agricultural industry in the EAA to use their own land to store and treat their runoff to the Everglades.

For too many years, state taxpayers have covered the costs of treating billions of gallons of agricultural runoff and removed thousands of tons of the industry’s phosphorus. 

Isn’t it time we tell them to store and treat their water on their own lands, just like we require other land development to do now? Shouldn’t we use our state-owned STAs for the goal of restoring the River of Grass and stopping the damaging discharges to the coastal estuaries?

Shouldn’t we require the EAA agricultural industry to store and clean up their own water, as the Florida Constitution requires? 

-Mark Perry, executive director of Florida Oceanographic Society