When east fights west, Big Sugar wins

Earlier this year as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considered options for its new Lake Okeechobee “playbook,” Florida’s east and west coasts stood united.

Together they said: Damaging discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries must be curtailed. And more water must go south — as Mother Nature intended.

The unanimity helped move the needle, as the Corps selected “Plan CC” as its baseline model for the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). It was the most balanced plan overall and a good starting point for further optimization.

But then the finger-pointing began.

Some on the west coast insisted more water must go east. East coast interests protested. Talk of sending water south seemed to go out the window.

And in their well-appointed offices, Florida’s sugar barons were surely rubbing their hands together with glee.

It’s classic divide and conquer. For as the coastal communities bicker over how to “share the adversity,” who gets off scott free, without having to accept any of it?

Big Sugar, of course.

The industry, centered in the vast Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee, is among the most privileged corporate sectors in the United States. It benefits from decades-old laws designed to provide flood protection and water supply, rules which have been interpreted in a way that all but guarantees ideal growing conditions for sugar cane — and discharges to the estuaries.

The LOSOM process threatened that hegemony by promising relief to the estuaries. “Water supply” interests, including Big Sugar, protested. They argued Plan CC threatened their access to water; they want more water in the lake during dry times, just in case they need it. That all but guarantees damaging discharges to the estuaries later on.

Unfortunately, Corps officials appear to have heeded their pleas, and have vowed to improve water supply performance over what’s proposed in the baseline LOSOM plan.

In other words, Big Sugar will get what it wants. And the estuaries will just have to suck it up and fight over the crumbs.

But the estuaries have been “sucking it up” for too long. And the internecine bickering takes everyone’s eyes off the real prize: The need to send more water south.

And if there aren’t expedient ways to do so right now, we need to create them.

The state must acquire more land for stormwater treatment south of Lake O — either from willing sellers or by eminent domain, as necessary.

Some of those decades-old laws will have to be amended to balance the playing field.

And new regulations could be written to require Big Sugar to store and clean more water on their own land, rather than pumping it all into the canals and stormwater treatment areas, leaving no room for water from the lake.

Whatever the final LOSOM outcome, it’s certain both the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries will see damaging discharges.

But it’s time to insist Big Sugar share some of this adversity.

For once.