December 16, 2007
Lake Okeechobee isn't a one-use ecosystem
By Thom Rumberger
Much has been made of government's decision last summer to not pump phosphorous-rich water into Lake Okeechobee. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson claims that this one decision — which some claim will deprive growers of some irrigation water — makes up $4 million of the $1 billion in losses expected to Florida's farm economy. Further, sugarcane farmers argue that sugar production (and presumably profits) may fall by 20 percent.
Sounds impressive. But this is one of those explanations that, while it may add up, sure doesn't figure upon closer scrutiny.
The picture offered by the sugar industry and Commissioner Bronson is misleading at its starting point. Failure to allow "back pumping" is hardly the cause here. It's the drought! The drought is wreaking havoc on Everglades National Park and causing water shortages throughout South Florida.
Considered in isolation, losses to South Florida farms are indeed significant. But aren't we in this together? Shouldn't farming interests have the same rights as the rest of the community to this water, no more and no less?
With that question in mind, we can begin to answer others. Let's ask, for instance, if it really matters that a few inches of water is stored in Lake Okeechobee to irrigate farms during the dry season.
The answer is not as simple as agriculture's hardship claims.
Lake Okeechobee is the ever-flowing heart of the Everglades. Its watershed covers tens of thousands of square miles, touching even the southern suburbs of Orlando. It holds water that may, depending on the weather, supply homes in South Florida, irrigate sugarcane fields, get treated and delivered to the Everglades, or get dumped as wastewater into the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean.
As water drains into Lake Okeechobee it picks up more than 500 tons of pollution from upstream towns and farms. Cow manure, fertilizer and sewage make the lake one of Florida's biggest water-quality headaches. The state is facing a 2015 deadline to get the pollution out of the lake. If the deadline is missed — and it will be — lawsuits will ensue to force tough cleanup measures on all of the upstream sources of pollution.
A dike surrounds Lake Okeechobee. That dike leaks and that worries people. A collapse of the dike could send a 10-mile wall of water flooding over towns and fields. So when Lake Okeechobee gets too much water, the federal government releases the excess into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. People on the receiving end of that dirty water are pretty upset, and justifiably so. Some have even sued the federal government, saying that their property rights have been harmed.
Consider this. It will cost $2 billion to build treatment systems to remove the pollution entering the lake. It costs $50 to remove one pound of phosphorous from water. Scientists say the lake can absorb about 100 tons from human sources. So that leaves 400 tons a year to clean up. That's $40 million a year in tax dollars to clean up what could be prevented!
In contrast, look at what happened last year when these farms were not allowed to pump water back into Lake Okeechobee. The water instead was treated and then released into the Everglades.
There it augmented the drinking-water supply for millions of people and replenished the wetlands that make up the River of Grass. Some of the water is finding its way into Florida Bay, improving the habitat for fish and fishermen alike.
Lake Okeechobee is part of a world-class ecosystem that we are morally and fiscally obliged to manage back to health.
Allow one-use — storing irrigation water — preferential treatment over, say, protecting our estuaries, or providing drinking water and meeting water-quality standards, or restoring the Everglades and averting dike failure.
Does that make sense? No. And no casual calculation of projected farm losses can make it make so.
An ostensible $44 million loss to farming that results from a reasonable and necessary prohibition against harmful back-pumping should not be turned into an excuse to saddle taxpayers with an expenditure of multiples of that amount to clean up the mess created by using Lake Okeechobee as a catch basin for farm irrigators.
Contact Thom Rumberger, a Florida attorney who is chairman of the Everglades Trust, at (850) 577-1824.