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If the sugar industry wants to be a good neighbor...
October 4, 2018

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To the editor:

The recent full page ad written by Robert Buker, Jr, CEO and President of U.S. Sugar, concerning the Lake Okeechobee watershed suggests that in Florida nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and the Sugar Industry continuing to deny any culpability or responsibility for the devastating impacts of harmful algae blooms on our environment and businesses.

To begin with, Buker's statement and accompanied map depicts Lake Okeechobee flow to the Caloosahatchee at 30 percent and inflow to the lake from the sugar cane fields in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) at 1 percent. In fact, excessive polluted water flow from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee is 44 percent on average and as high as 70 percent during the summer months of exceedingly heavy rainfall. Buker's comment about the volume of water back pumped from the EAA into Lake Okeechobee does not even pass the straight face test.

For decades, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) would back pump water from the EAA into Lake Okeechobee for "water supply" and "flood control." Gov. Crist appointees on the SFWMD finally stopped the back pumping for water supply. Back pumping for flood control continues to be allowed to this day. Unfortunately, the decades of back pumping has built up residual or legacy nutrients that are continually mixed in the water column in the Lake during severe summer storm events, including hurricane season, resulting in harmful algae blooms in the Lake and release of toxic discharge to the Caloosahatchee and Saint Lucie.

Back pumping for water supply meant that the water was pack pumped from the EAA into Lake Okeechobee during the wet season to ensure that the Lake had sufficient water to irrigate the sugar cane fields during the dry season. The Sugar industry, to this day, use the back pumping into Lake Okeechobee for flood control as their convenient justification for excess polluted water from the EAA discharged into the Lake.

Buker suggests that water is only back pumped from the EAA to Lake Okeechobee to provide flood protection for the communities adjacent southern Lake Okeechobee. Those comments are disingenuous as the massive volume of water redirected to the lake is predominantly from the EAA, which is in excess of 700,000 acres in size and covers a far greater area than the communities around the lake that have a much smaller foot print and exhibit higher ground elevations.

The SFWMD manages the water level in the EAA at 18 inches to 24 inches below ground to provide optimum growing conditions for sugar cane regardless of the seasonal fluctuations resulting in destruction to our rivers, coastal estuaries and Everglades. The Sugar industry has not been able to comply with the Federal Consent Decree that phosphorous released to the Everglades must not exceed 10 ppb and in fact, must rely on water back pumped into the Lake to protect their sugar cane fields from flooding. To make matters worse, there are no numeric nutrient standards that back pumping must comply with to prevent contaminated water from being back pumped into the Lake from the EAA.

If Buker and U.S. Sugar truly want to be a good neighbor and support water management policies based on science than he should embrace the findings of the University of Florida Water Institute 2015 study that concluded reducing discharges (to coastal estuaries) and meeting the Everglades' need for more water will require additional land for storage and treatment between Lake Okeechobee and Everglades National Park and the National Academy of Sciences recent independent scientific review of Everglades restoration progress reporting on the need for increase storage and treatment of water south of Lake Okeechobee.

Ray Judah,

former Lee County commissioner

Fort Myers

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