By Malcolm S. “Bubba” Wade Jr.
May 13, 2016
Throughout the year, Floridians have watched with concern as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released billions of gallons of water from Lake Okeechobee in an effort to reduce pressure on the Herbert Hoover Dike and also prepare for the rainy season.
As residents of South Florida and Southwest Florida, U.S. Sugar’s employees share in the frustration over these releases, which is why we support additional federal funds to expedite the repairs of the Herbert Hoover Dike and finish projects in the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan pipeline. While the releases have been frustrating, frustration doesn’t justify the war of misinformation currently being waged by environmental critics. Floridians following this issue want and deserve the facts, and sadly, there’s nothing factual about the claims being made by these extremists.
For starters, the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers are not relief valves so the Everglades Agriculture Area could maintain optimum growing conditions. The agriculture area was flooded during the historic January rains with many acres of vegetable and planted sugar cane lost. The agriculture area has identical permits to every other agricultural interest in the South Florida Water Management District’s 16 counties and is only allowed to discharge three quarters of an inch of flooding per day, while many urban coastal areas discharge far in excess of that. But these critics maintain that somehow farmers in the agriculture area should not have the same property rights as others in the SFWMD and flooding our property should be no big deal.
Critics have also complained that SFWMD was back pumping agriculture area water at the same time the Army Corps of Engineers was working to respond to rising lake water. Water is only pumped from the agriculture area to provide flood protection for Clewiston, Lake Harbor, Belle Glade, South Bay, Pahokee and Canal Point in extreme weather events, and for the last 5 years amounts to only 3 percent of the water flowing into the lake, 4 percent of the phosphorus and 6 percent of the nitrogen. The agriculture area water quality is no different than the other 97 percent that flows into the lake from other sources.
Some critics have also suggested that restoration plan modeling is flawed by 1 million acre-feet of additional storage to manage Lake Okeechobee. The SFWMD has already refuted this in a May 16 “Get the Facts” by stating their model is the most advanced in the world relying on data from 1965 to 1995 and later updated as projects are planned with up-to-date rainfall, topographic and land-use data.
Some have also falsely claimed that more storage south will restore coastal estuaries, rehydrate the Everglades, recharge the Biscayne aquifer and protect private and public well fields. It would be interesting to hear from these same people how that would work in 2016 when the Everglades was several feet over its regulatory schedule, wildlife and tree islands were threatened and the state and Federal agencies were instituting emergency procedures to get the water levels in the Everglades down. More storage in the agriculture area would have helped the Everglades crisis, not the Lake or estuaries.
We have a daunting task to educate the general public of the facts on how our water systems actually work, and the false science peddled by some environmentalists should not be taken seriously by responsible citizens trying to understand our complicated and interconnected water system. Readers are encouraged to visit ussugar.com/releases to read more of the facts, including data from the South Florida Water Management District, studies from reputable, independent scientific organizations and scientists and engineers who are closely following the issue. Working together, we can continue to make Everglades restoration and improving water quality a priority. But any good faith effort to address these concerns starts with an acknowledgment of the facts.
Malcolm S. “Bubba” Wade Jr. is the senior vice president of Corporate Strategy and Business Development for U.S. Sugar.