FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Senior Director, Corporate Communications and Public Affairs
U.S. Sugar Denounces Accusations from Environmentalists about Lake Okeechobee Discharges as Baseless, Irresponsible
FORT MYERS, Fla., March 14, 2016 – U.S. Sugar today sharply criticized the Sierra Club for blaming sugarcane farmers for harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges caused by record rainfall and called for collaborative solutions to improving water storage and preventing future releases.
U.S. Sugar accused environmentalists for distributing blatantly false and distorted information to concerned residents in order to advance their political agenda, which would hurt rural farming communities and impact the nation’s food supply.
‘’The Sierra Club has been and continues to be relentless in spewing lies to put hardworking farmers out of business and destroy rural communities,’’ said Judy Sanchez, senior director of corporate communications and public affairs for U.S. Sugar. “Sugarcane farmers are reducing pollution, not increasing it, and to say otherwise is simply irresponsible and a slap in the face to the communities that rely on farming for jobs and security.’’
In particular, environmentalists are claiming that U.S. Sugar is pumping water from its farm fields into Lake Okeechobee, which is absolutely false. Neither U.S. Sugar, nor any other sugarcane farmers, pump any water into the lake. In U.S. Sugar’s case, such pumping wouldn’t even be possible – the company’s farm lands aren’t directly connected to the lake.
While U.S. Sugar shares in the frustration over the discharges, science is clear that sugarcane farmers are not polluting Florida’s estuaries. Over the past 20 years, farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area have reduced the amount of phosphorus leaving farms by average 56 percent, far exceeding state requirements. Last year, farmers achieved a record 79 percent reduction.
Water being released from Lake Okeechobee doesn’t originate on EAA farmland. Between 2006 and 2015, less than 1 percent of all the water entering Lake Okeechobee came from south of the lake, where U.S. Sugar farms, according to the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD). The vast majority comes from the massive, 5,000-square-mile watershed that flows into the lake and extends almost as far north as Orlando.
“Only a small fraction of water is entering the lake from the south where sugarcane farmers operate and, thanks to the efforts of these farmers, that water is cleaner when it leaves their farms than when it enters,’’ said Bob Brown, Technical Advisor for Everglades Agricultural Area land owners and former Assistant Executive Director of the South Florida Water Management. “Trying to make U.S. Sugar the bad guy ignores the facts from scientists and is deceptive to those seeking real solutions.’’
Rather than blame sugarcane farmers, Brown said, environmentalists should look to the real source of pollution in the Caloosahatchee River: local run-off from homes and businesses. Unregulated run-off accounts for 70 to 80 percent of water flowing into the Caloosahatchee, according to the SFWMD.
U.S. Sugar officials denounced the Sierra Club’s allegations that back pumping of water south of the lake is contributing to harmful discharges. Back pumping is strictly controlled by SFWMD and done only when canals running through communities reach potentially dangerous levels. Based on the unprecedented rainfall brought on by El Nino in January, SFWMD back pumped for four days (Jan. 27-31), adding a total 9 billion gallons to the lake. That’s just a small fraction of the 11 billion gallons per day that were released from the lake over several weeks.
Historically, back pumping has occurred only eight times since 2008 in order to protect homes, businesses, schools and farms in the Glades communities. Claiming that back pumping benefits just farmers is short-sighted and disrespectful to the thousands of families living along the edge of Florida’s largest lake.
“These attacks by a vocal minority are extremely frustrating and disheartening to those of us in the Glades communities who are working hard to be good neighbors and protectors of our environment,’’ said Hillary Hyslope, executive director of the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce. “These misguided attacks put jobs in farming and sports fishing at risk and have no place in the current debate.’’
U.S. Sugar officials urged the Sierra Club and other misinformed critics to stop dispelling sensationalized falsehoods about sugarcane farmers and, instead, focus on projects to increase water storage and prevent future releases, including improvements to the Herbert Hoover Dike. Glades and Southwest Florida communities must work together with state and federal agencies to complete existing projects as timely and cost-efficiently as possible.