One of Governor DeSantis’ first acts was to replace Board members of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) who were closely aligned with the sugar industry. After dismal years of Rick Scott’s regime, Floridians breathed a sigh of relief, hoping the new Board would turn away from massive, taxpayer boondoggles and infrastructure projects in the name of the Everglades and our estuaries that benefit, first and foremost, Big Sugar.
Unfortunately, Big Sugar continues to control the narrative, like a virulent pandemic, as evidenced by persistent harmful algae blooms, public health alerts and death of fish and wildlife along our beaches.
The truth today is as bright and clear as it was 30 years ago: The only way to restore the flow of clean, freshwater to the Everglades, while protecting tribal lands from flooding and estuaries from being used as cesspits, is to size water storage and treatment areas adequate to the purpose.
Big Sugar has always opposed restoring the flow of water from Lake Okeechobee south to Florida Bay in favor of taxpayer-funded reservoirs and aquifer storage recovery wells (ASR). Wherever Big Sugar can, it promotes legislative “fixes” that anchor the industry’s prerogatives.
Big Sugar’s influence over the SFWMD has been on display during the process surrounding the building of the C-43 reservoir and in the ongoing debate with respect to the Everglades reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). As currently designed, the C-43 reservoir will be completed without a filtration wetland or storm water treatment system to remove the toxic brew of insecticides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers including phosphorus and nitrogen released from the sugar cane fields around Lake Okeechobee. Furthermore, the C-43 reservoir is designed to store approximately 170,000 acre feet (55 billion gallons) of water and the Everglades reservoir approximately 240,000 acre feet (78 billion gallons*) of water.
Tragically, the combined total of 133 billion gallons of water stored in the C-43 and Everglades reservoirs is inadequate to handle the approximately 500 billion gallons of polluted water released from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River during the wet, rainy summer months.
To compound the inept and inadequate approach to “getting the water right,” the Florida Legislature has approved a total of $100 million to be spent by the SFWMD on ASR wells north of Lake Okeechobee to capture and store excess fresh water during the wet season. The SFWMD is investigating the construction of approximately 10 injection wells with the state allocated funds. In addition to excessive construction and maintenance costs, there is uncertainty about the potential contamination of untreated storm water into groundwater aquifers. Water injected into the ground is in danger of contamination by naturally occurring pollutants like arsenic, and research into removing contaminants from recovered water remains unclear, especially at the scale proposed. The introduction of this public health risk has the added negative effect of removing precious water from the Lake Okeechobee watershed.
Big Sugar legislative advocate Senator Ray Rodrigues suggests “that the ASR wells can be built more quickly than nearly any other restoration projects in the pipeline.” Not surprisingly, Rodrigues is quick to support Big Sugar’s push for ASR without fully understanding the consequences of spending taxpayers monies on yet another misguided infrastructure project approach to restoring the south Florida ecosystem.
The most significant impact of ASR’s on the Lake Okeechobee watershed is the removal of water critical to rehydrating the Everglades. Moving clean water south is essential for preventing hypersaline conditions in Florida Bay, recharging the Biscayne aquifer to protect southeast Florida’s primary water supply, and countering sea level rise in south Florida by greatly reducing the risk of saltwater intrusion of private and public well fields.
The current SFWMD Governing Board could distinguish itself by pushing back against Big Sugar’s meddling with state water management and policy objectives. It could request that the state Legislature remove the requirement to spend the $100 million exclusively on ASR wells and allow the funding to be used to “fix the flow” with more storage and treatment of water flowing south through the EAA from Lake Okeechobee.
* This blog has been updated to correct a previous version which stated that the EAA Reservoir’s 240,000 acre feet was equal to approximately 60 billion gallons of water storage.
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