Thursday, June 30, 2016

Bittersweet Water Quality

The beat goes on. The media and environmental scribes continue to hammer away at the sugar-cane industry for its role in polluting Lake Okeechobee and the surrounding waterways.
The most recent tack is to tut-tut the government for subsidizing “big sugar” — forgiven loans, import restrictions, limited domestic production — de facto subsidies to ensure a price advantage over foreign competition. The strategy of “big sugar” opponents may be to drive U.S. producers out of business so the land can be turned into filter marshes and holding ponds to clean up water flowing into the Everglades.
That won’t happen. A major player in the Florida economy — $3.2 billion per year and over 12,000 jobs — the sugar industry is here to stay. And it should be. Transferring wealth is a poor strategy for dealing with pollution.
So is buying land. The cry for spending Amendment 1 money to purchase U.S. Sugar land south of the lake continues (I have been among the criers). One set of options has expired, but another, requiring all-or-nothing purchase at market price, remains.
That would be a huge expense, and it would only be a band aid. To have an impact on pollution control, land to the east and west would have to be purchased as well, not to mention thousands of acres to the north where flow from the Kissimmee area carries its own set of pollutants.
We’re talking about billions of government dollars to buy untold acres. Then there is the matter of building new reservoirs, enlarging canals and installing clean-up facilities. A massive undertaking requiring not only a staggering amount of public money, but also decades of time.
It won’t happen.
To get a perspective on what would be involved, I invite the reader to drive to Clewiston, get off the main highway and wander among the cane fields. You will see that the buy-land-and-clean-up-the-flow-south strategy is unrealistic, if not downright absurd.
An approach that is realistic and might have an impact is to toughen the nutrient standards for all lakes and waterways in Florida. Forget about the piecemeal site-specific specs and put in place stringent limits statewide for soluble nitrogen and phosphorus, the bad actors in fertilizer runoff.
The Department of Environmental Protection can readily do that. And it should. It doesn’t take billions of dollars in land purchase to tighten water-quality specs.
But can those specs be enforced? Probably not everywhere. But they can be enforced in the areas of greatest concern, and Clewiston is one of those areas.
The sugar industry must be held accountable for water pollution — and fertilizer runoff is the greatest cause. Imposing and enforcing standards on waterways amid the cane fields and refineries may be the only realistic way to curb pollution from the sugar industry.
To convince yourself, take a road trip.

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