The Facts on the Lake Okeechobee Releases
We share in the frustration over the Lake Okeechobee discharges. We want to collaborate in finding solutions that improve water storage and reduce the risk of discharges occurring again. But the Sierra Club’s reckless and mean-spirited attacks – which are part of their ongoing vendetta against sugarcane farmers – misdirect the focus away from any meaningful discussion of the facts that will lead us to real solutions. That these radicals are blaming a single company, U.S. Sugar, for systemic regional problems wrought by over 100 years of change is utterly ridiculous.
Here are the facts on the Lake Okeechobee releases:
FACT: Only 3% of the water and 4% of the phosphorous in Lake Okeechobee is coming from south of Lake Okeechobee, where the farming communities are located.(Source: South Florida Water Management District study “Past & Present Water Quality Conditions in the South Florida Water Management District, page 22. November 5, 2015)
FACT: As much as 80 percent of the nutrients are coming from the local basins in both the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. (Source: SFWMD, Update on Nitrogen Water Quality Conditions in the South Florida Water Management District).
Back Pumping – A Necessary Flood Control Measure Controlled by SFWMD, Not U.S. Sugar
Contrary to claims made by the Sierra Club and other activists, U.S. Sugar does not back pump into Lake Okeechobee. Controlled by the South Florida Water Management District, it is a necessary flood control measure that protects neighborhoods, businesses, schools, hospitals, and farms.
FACT: Back pumping only occurred over a period of 4 days (January 27th through January 31st) and accounted for 9 billion gallons in total. By comparison, until recently, the Army Corps was releasing 11 billion gallons per day. (Source: South Florida Water Management District statement, “Flood Control Operations Update.” January 31, 2016)
More facts about back pumping:
- U.S. Sugar does not pump water from its fields into Lake Okeechobee. Nor do any other sugarcane farmers.
- Back pumping into the lake wouldn’t even possible – U.S. Sugar’s property does not connect directly to Lake Okeechobee.
- Back pumping is strictly controlled by SFWMD.
- Back pumping accounted for less than three quarters of an inch of the more than 13 inches of rain added to Lake Okeechobee in January.
- Back pumping is conducted to protect Glades-area communities, businesses, hospitals, schools and farms from catastrophic flooding and according to SFWMD, benefits “thousands of families and businesses.”
The Facts on Red Tide
In media reports, some activists have attempted to link the water from U.S. Sugar’s farms to red tide blooms off the Gulf Coast. The science simply does not support this. Here is what Mote Marine Laboratory, the leading expert on Florida Red Tide, has to say about what causes red tide:
In contrast to the many red tide species that are fueled by nutrient pollution associated with urban or agricultural runoff, there is no direct link between nutrient pollution and the frequency or severity of red tides caused by K. brevis. Florida red tides develop 10-40 miles offshore, away from man-made nutrient sources. Red tides occurred in Florida long before human settlement, and severe red tides were observed in the mid-1900s before the state’s coastlines were heavily developed. However, once red tides are transported inshore, they are capable of using man-made nutrients for their growth.(Source:Mote Marine Laboratory, “Florida Red Tide FAQs.)
What Local Leaders Are Saying About Reports on the Lake Okeechobee Discharges
Many community leaders in South and Southwest Florida are attempting to push back against the misinformation spread by groups like the Sierra Club. Here is what they are saying:
“You want to kill your tourism? Start talking about the toxic water in Lake Okeechobee and how it’s discharging to our coastal communities. No. It’s good, clean fresh water that a whole lot of people use for a drinking water source, including the fancy people over here on the coast. In fact, there’s just too much fresh water in a saltwater environment. So definitely, technically, it’s causing problems. But it’s not toxic in the way people are connoting it is toxic. It is not.”
– D. Albrey Arrington Ph.D., Executive Director of the Loxahatchee River District, March 3, 2016, Water Resource Advisory Meeting
“Despite the initiation of increased Lake Okeechobee regulatory releases, over the last four days approximately 70% of the current water flow is runoff from the Caloosahatchee watershed. While championing the need to move water from Lake Okeechobee to the south, the City of Sanibel has consistently recognized our need for water storage within the Caloosahatchee watershed.”
– Sanibel Mayor Kevin Ruane, February 5, 2016
“The discoloration is caused almost entirely from naturally occurring tannins in the 1,400-square-mile Caloosahatchee River Basin involving runoff from 900,000 acres on both sides of the river. And yes, when you open the floodgates from Okeechobee, the brown water does come in huge volumes.”
– Lee County Commission Chairman Frank Mann, February 16, 2016
“While much of the attention right now is directed toward the Lake Okeechobee discharges, it’s important to remember that 60 percent to 80 percent of the pollution that makes its way into the Caloosahatchee comes from our local basin runoff.
– Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman, February 5, 2016
“The Sierra Club and many Everglades Foundation supporters claim that agriculture in general, and sugar cane growers in particular, are destroying the state’s waters. Never mind that the water that flows off sugar cane land is cleaner than when it flowed onto the land, far exceeding any state requirement. Never mind that sugar cane farmers actually have made the largest private investment, $400 million, for the restoration of the Everglades. And especially never mind that it isn’t water from the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) that is ending up in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers in the first place. Lake Okeechobee’s water comes from the north, east and west. Only 5 percent of the water entering Lake Okeechobee comes from the south, and that water comes from our rural communities to protect homes and people from flooding, not from farms.”
– Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor, February 26, 2016
U.S. Sugar Farmers Are on the Front Lines of Water Quality Improvements
Last year, farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area reached a historic milestone for water quality improvements—a 79 percent annual reduction of phosphorus in the water flowing from farms. This achievement continues a 20-year trend of farmers reducing phosphorus levels by an average of 56 percent annually (Source: South Florida Water Management District news release, “Everglades Water Quality Improvement Program Marks 20 Years of Success.” August 13, 2015)
The improvements in water quality are the result of Best Management Practices (BMPs), which are industry-leading, innovative farming practices that help prevent soil sediment from being pumped with water as it moves off our farms. Some of the techniques include:
- Using high-tech lasers to level fields, reduce soil erosion and improve water control;
- Promoting vegetation growth along canal banks to trap soil sediment;
- Improving canal- and ditch-cleaning programs;
- Planting cover crops to minimize wind and water soil erosion; and
- Using precision agricultural testing and technology to manage crop nutrients.
These on-farm practices—paid 100 percent by the farmers—were researched and developed in conjunction with scientists at the University of Florida and the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. EAA farmers were the first in Florida to implement extensive BMP programs, and their on-farm water and soil management techniques have served as the model for the Florida Department of Agriculture BMP program used statewide. In 2015, after being challenged in court, Florida’s 2nd District Court of Appeals sided with the farmers by upholding the use of BMPs and noting the difference they are making in improving water quality across the EAA.
90 percent of the water and phosphorus flowing into Lake Okeechobee comes from the northern watershed, not from south of the lake.
Over a 10-year period, less than one percent of all the water entering Lake Okeechobee came from south of the lake.