December 11, 2016
Sugar-cane growing on state land misses pollution-cleanup goal, records show
Two sugar cane farms repeatedly failing to meet Everglades pollution-cleanup goals remain in business thanks to an accommodating landlord — the state of Florida.
The two farms, leasing a combined 1,200 acres of publicly owned land in Palm Beach County, generate large spikes in water pollution, state records show, at a time when taxpayers are spending billions to clean up the Everglades.
Phosphorus-laden water that pollutes the Everglades comes from fertilizer, animal waste, sewage and the natural decay of soils, washing off land and into waterways when it rains.
Each year, farmers south of Lake Okeechobee are supposed to reduce the amount of phosphorus coming off the land at least 25 percent below a state-set target aimed at curbing pollution.
Yet from 2011 to 2015, the average phosphorus level for a sugar cane farm on state property northwest of Wellington was about four times greater than the targeted level. The farm there averaged a 210 percent increase in phosphorus over the five-year period, according to a review of annual water quality records.
And in southwestern Palm Beach County, the average phosphorus level for South Florida Water Management District land growing sugar cane was about three times above the targeted level during that five-year time period. It averaged a 141 percent yearly increase in phosphorus, the records show.
From 2013 to 2015, these two publicly owned properties had some of the steepest spikes in phosphorus among the dozen or more farms where pollution numbers were still on the rise.
Those spikes in phosphorus levels are allowed to continue because the Florida law that calls for a 25 percent reduction prioritizes regional success over individual farm results.
As a result, farms that fail to hit the pollution-fighting benchmark don't face repercussions as long as the farming region as a whole reduces phosphorus by at least 25 percent.
State officials and sugar cane growers say improved Everglades water quality results show that the regional approach is working — even though each year there are still individual farms, like the two state properties, where phosphorus levels are going up instead of decreasing.
Environmental groups argue that the state's 25 percent phosphorus reduction standard was intentionally set too low, making it easy for the influential sugar industry to meet the water pollution cleanup rule — and allowing pollution "hot spots" to remain.
The state should at least hold farmers using public land to a higher pollution-cleanup standard, according to Charles Lee, of the environmental group Audubon Florida.
"You would think the state of Florida would want to take its land out of the cycle of causing the problem," Lee said. "Phosphorus is threatening the Everglades. ... Use that land for part of the solution, not to generate more of the problem."
A push to improve Everglades
Decades of draining South Florida to make way for farming and development shrunk the Everglades to half its original size. Now rain water washing phosphorus off farms and lawns threatens what remains of the shrunken River of Grass.
Taxpayers since 2000 have spent $3.2 billion on a state and federal Everglades restoration plan intended to get more water to the Everglades, while also cleaning up water pollution. That's meant to both save the Everglades and boost the water supply for South Florida's growing communities.
To make that cleanup easier, the state imposed an annual phosphorus reduction requirement on farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area — which covers nearly 500,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee.
That requirement calls for farmers to reduce phosphorus levels 25 percent below levels during a 10-year period between 1978 and 1988, before pollution-fighting efforts began.
To reduce pollution, farmers are required to take steps such as using less fertilizer, changing irrigation techniques, cleaning out drainage ditches and other measures aimed at limiting the phosphorus that drains off farmland and into the Everglades.
During the past 21 years, South Florida's growers have outperformed the regional phosphorus cleanup standard — averaging a 55 percent reduction, according to the South Florida Water Management District.
If growers weren't meeting that regional standard, then the state could require farmers who miss the 25 percent mark to add more pollution-control measures to reduce phosphorus draining off the land. While that's potentially good for the Everglades, it adds to farming costs.
A few "bad years" of phosphorus levels from individual properties doesn't affect the success of the regional pollution cleanup effort, said Pamela Wade, the South Florida Water Management District's Everglades restoration bureau chief.
Tests show that 90 percent of the Everglades now meets the phosphorus-level water quality standard, according to the district.
"As long as the (agricultural area) as a whole is in compliance then it's working as it was designed to work," Wade said.
State agencies have long leased land, with no immediate plans for public use, to farmers as a cost-savings measure.
State officials say that allowing farming avoids maintenance costs that would otherwise be required to keep Melaleuca, Brazilian pepper and other invading foreign plants — which are also a threat to the Everglades — from overtaking property.
Leases benefit Big Sugar
The sugar cane grown from the two state properties with increases in phosphorus goes to Florida's two biggest sugar producers, Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar Corp.
The South Florida Water Management District leases 634 acres in southwestern Palm Beach County, along Miami Canal Road, to the Sugar Farms Co-op, which is part of Florida Crystals.
There was a 141 percent average annual increase in phosphorus from water draining off the district's land between 2011 and 2015, according to a review of annual water quality records in the district's South Florida Environmental Report.
While the property was performing well in 2011, its phosphorus numbers started to rise in 2012 and were followed by a big spike during 2013. That's when heavy summer storms dumped nearly 9 inches of rain and led to two weeks of draining, according to the district.
Year-to-year spikes in phosphorus coming from individual farms are "irrelevant" if the farming region as a whole continues to meet its pollution-reduction requirements, Florida Crystals Vice President Gaston Cantens said.
"Phosphorus levels vary each year for every farm based on weather patterns and crop type, among other factors," Cantens said.
The district in 1999 acquired the land from Florida Crystals as part of a $2.3 million deal for nearly 900 acres targeted for a future Everglades restoration reservoir.
Since then, Florida Crystals has been paying about $54,000 — or about $63 per acre — each year to lease back the nearly 900 acres. The lease is set to expire in 2019, according to the district.
The other publicly owned land showing spikes in phosphorus runoff includes 594 acres along U.S. 98 and the West Palm Beach Canal, northwest of Wellington.
The state is leasing these 594 acres to PRIDE Enterprises, an inmate training company that uses the land to grow sugar cane for U.S. Sugar.
PRIDE pays a $300 annual administrative fee to use the state land to grow sugar cane, but pays no rent on its lease that extends through 2052.
Between 2011 and 2015, there was a 210 percent average annual increase in phosphorus from that property where sugar cane along with rotations of sweet corn are grown.
Poor practices for discharging water from some fields there — as well as questions about monitoring equipment used to sample water quality — may have affected the reported phosphorus levels, according to the district.
Opposing tighter rules
PRIDE uses state-required measures to reduce phosphorus, such as following drainage limits, sediment controls and fertilizer spill prevention efforts, said Dee Kiminki, PRIDE's chief administrative officer.
Despite those measures, she said the property's water-quality results can be affected by phosphorus-loaded water seeping in from other areas, the topography of the land and size of the farm as well as conditions of the land that preceded sugar cane farming. For example, the land was used as a dairy farm prior to growing sugar cane.
The differing factors that can lead to boosts in phosphorus levels are a big reason why the state should use a regional standard when regulating pollution control results, instead of going farm by farm, according to Jose "Pepe" Lopez, U.S. Sugar's director of water compliance.
"Individually, it would be very difficult," Lopez said about trying to gauge each farm's ability to reach the 25 percent reduction standard. "That would be a nightmare to comply with."
While sugar cane growers face pollution cleanup requirements, they argue that much of the pollution problem threatening the Everglades comes from phosphorus that flows into Lake Okeechobee from Central Florida — before that water even makes it to South Florida's sugar cane fields.
There is no scientific justification for "ratcheting down on individual farmers" if the goal of getting cleaner water to the Everglades is being met, U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said.
‘A missed opportunity'
Environmental groups say the state should be doing more to ensure that sugar cane farming — especially on publicly owned property — isn't adding to Everglades water pollution problems.
The state's regional phosphorus reduction requirement is so easily met that it shields repeat polluters from having to do more to clean up pollutants, according to Melodie Naja, the Everglades Foundation's chief scientist.
"The rule needs to be updated, but of course no one wants to go there," Naja. "You need to check property by property to see where are the high levels of phosphorus and to target those farms."
Using state land to grow sugar cane is "a missed opportunity" at a time when Florida needs more places to store and clean up water for the Everglades, said Cara Capp, Everglades Coalition co-chair.
"We should look for opportunities to make changes immediately," Capp said, "even if that means breaking a lease."