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One could say things are heating up in South Florida, or worse yet, one should say that things are dying in South Florida. The tourist trade, fishing charters, the fish, the rivers themselves.
Critics have long warned that contaminated water will do all these things some day, but now that day is here. Heavy rains caused sugar farmers to pump excess water north into Lake Okeechobee in order to drain flooded cropland.
This water was contaminated with chemicals from the sugar farming operation, and this filled the lake with poison. Then the Army Corps of Engineers, fearing the old dikes around the lake might fail, pumped the poison east and west into the St. Lucie River and the Caloosahatchee River.
Thus the poison was spread. Thus the water managers have not managed well. Thus Randy Schultz has dubbed our southern water management district, the US SUGAR/WATER MANAGEMENT DISTRICT.
Where is the Santa Fe River? It is a little bit north of big Lake O. Remember, our water district managers work for the same boss as the US/Sugar Water Management District.
It’s now the US Sugar/ Water Management District
Big Sugar, Water district team up on environmental propaganda
U.S. Sugar spent about $1.5 million on Gov. Rick Scott and other Republicans in 2014. The company has given $100,000 to the governor’s current political action committee. U.S. Sugar is getting good returns on its investment.
South Florida is suffering another environmental crises related to Lake Okeechobee. El Niño-winter rainfall has filled the lake, forcing the Army Corps of Engineers to dump water east and west to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee river basins. The water carries pollution from the lake and picks up more from suburban runoff.
The Corps lowers the water level to protect the Hoover Dike, whose 143 miles almost encircle the lake. The key stretches, however, are on the southern side. If the dike collapsed, flooding could spread, Katrina-like, all the way to Wellington.
As discharges pounded the coasts, the South Florida Water Management District announced that it had pumped water back into the lake from the south. Backpumping adds pollution, thus compounding the problem, if in a comparatively small way.
Since then, the district and U.S. Sugar have mounted a joint public relations campaign to defend backpumping, the district, U.S. Sugar and the company’s and the governor’s records on Everglades restoration. Latest example: A Tuesday news release claimed that farmers did not influence the decision to backpump.
According to the district, backpumping was necessary “to protect thousands of families and businesses living south of the lake” and has happened only nine times in the last eight years. The release didn’t say that backpumping also moves excess water off fields, thus protecting farmers. The release also didn’t say that backpumping happens less often because a federal judge ruled that it violated the Clean Water Act. Farmers had regularly asked the district to backpump.
U.S. Sugar and the district also harmonized when environmental groups criticized the district’s refusal to buy some of the company’s land. If there were more places to store water south of the lake, the Corps could dump less water east and west through the rivers. A district news release called the purchase “a lousy deal.”
The release didn’t say that in 2008 U.S. Sugar wanted to sell all of the company’s land. The $1.75 billion price was reportedly $400 million above the appraised value. U.S. Sugar wanted to sell because times were bad for the company. That court ruling was one reason. Times are better, so the company doesn’t want to sell.
Scott’s contribution to the current crisis, of course, is to blame President Obama. In declaring an emergency from the lake discharges, the governor mentioned the president or the federal government seven times in 10 paragraphs. Scott blamed Obama for failing to provide money for the dike to hold 18.5 feet of water and said the feds are $880 million behind the state in paying for Everglades restoration.
Audubon of Florida Director Eric Draper calls Scott’s math “bookkeeper bickering.” With Everglades restoration estimated to cost $10 billion, Washington or Tallahassee will be technically ahead or behind.
Scott is doubly wrong on the dike. The Corps can’t spend what Congress hasn’t authorized and appropriated. In the best case, a Corps spokesman said in an interview, work on the southern side won’t be done until 2020 or 2021. It will take another five years to shore up the whole dike.
As Draper says, “The dike is not related to Everglades restoration.” A governor who supports restoration, though, would not want Lake Okeechobee to routinely hold 18.5 feet of water. The lake is healthier at lower levels. Slowing and filtering runoff from the north remain critical to cleaning up the lake.
Maximum water storage, however, could allow farmers on the south side to draw and return water when they want. Under that scenario, Lake Okeechobee could become the reservoir for U.S. Sugar and others.
U.S. Sugar praises Scott’s environmental record and stated that the southern Everglades is “on track to be permanently restored.” Farm runoff may be cleaner, but it’s not clean enough to avoid harming the Everglades. Scott signed legislation delaying the cleanup deadline yet again.
No governor has assumed more control over the water management districts. If the South Florida district is allied with U.S. Sugar, Rick Scott wants it that way. His contribution dollars outweigh your tax dollars.
Randy Schultz is the former editorial page editor of The Palm Beach Post. He also blogs for Boca Raton Magazine.
This from the Palm Beach Sun Sentinel