By Peter Girard
Did sugarcane growers flood the Everglades last week?
Few reporters seemed curious about how much of the wildlife emergency in their headlines was preventable. No one asked what it cost to keep fields dry in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). Or how much water came off sugarcane fields.
The answer–assuming 424,000 acres of sugarcane, and 15 inches of rain—is 173 billion gallons. Roughly the volume of polluted water that poisoned the Treasure Coast during 2016’s Toxic Summer discharges.
Where did it go this time? Some went into the lake, of course. (SFWMD claimed the back-pumped water had been treated because it came from flow equalization basins… where sugar growers pumped it days or even hours before it went to the lake.) As a qualified engineer told Bullsugar.org, the phosphorus levels in that water exceeded 200 ppb – 5x the allowable limit for the lake, and 20x the allowable limit for the Everglades.
That didn’t stop a massive amount of sugar runoff from going into the Everglades. How much? Enough to raise water levels south of the EAA to the point where animals drown or starve. Enough to pressure federal agencies into allowing water onto the nesting grounds of the endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow.
The total drainage from sugarcane fields was more than ⅓ of the total capacity of all three Water Conservation Areas (WCAs), which combined are bigger than Rhode Island. Enough to pile almost an extra foot of water onto WCA-3A’s entire 915 square-mile area.
Enough to flood this photo op (above) with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commissioner “Alligator” Ron Bergeron (left) who might otherwise have kept his shorts dry, while Executive Director Nick Wiley could have just worn boots.
Should sugarcane growers have kept an extra foot of water on their fields to protect wildlife and human health? That’s debatable. The problem is that water management officials, despite having the explicit authority to order this, never mention the possibility. And no one asks them to. So it’s never debated.
Should US Sugar’s and Florida Crystals’ $579 million sugarcane crop get bailed out at the expense of Florida’s $9.7 billion fishing industry, $10.4 billion boating industry, or $89.1 billion tourism industry? No one asks.
Our news media, politicians, taxpayers, and voters need to start asking. When a rainstorm prompts sugarcane growers to pump off hundreds of billions of gallons of pollution–enough to cover Delaware in 4 inches of water–triggering human health crises and wildlife die-offs so severe that Ron Bergeron warns, “there may be nothing left to save,” we need to question whether it’s worth it to protect this year’s sugar yield.
Maybe we’ll decide it is. But right now, we don’t even ask.