The Weather Channel

December 7, 2016

By Marcus Stern, with Kait Parker and Spencer Wilking

Marcus Stern

http://www.toxiclake.com/

CLEWISTON, Fla. – For months during 2016, plumes of toxic algae turned South Florida’s emerald waters the color of coffee and smothered its inlets under a fetid blanket of guacamole-green goop that killed off fish, suffocated oyster beds and triggered a ferocious outcry from coastal residents.

From NBC’s “Today Show” to The Daily Telegraph of London, news outlets chronicled the closing of beaches, the declaration of a state of emergency and the desperate, heart-breaking efforts of people using garden hoses to save manatees, affectionately known as sea cows, caked in toxic slime and struggling to breathe.

But the reports didn’t explain the most tragic part of the story – that this calamity is man-made. It’s the culmination of 135 years of engineering missteps, hubris and a determination to turn Everglades sawgrass into cash crops. Despite talk of spending $10.5 billion over the next two decades to fix the problem, a cloud of political uncertainty leaves it unclear when, how – or even if – the harmful algae blooms will be stopped.

Environmental degradation is only part of the price the public pays so private companies can turn sugar into money. These tropical wetlands have been drained and maintained for decades at great expense for the benefit of Florida’s sugar cane industry, which is dominated by two politically connected companies. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on a regional flood control system that keeps the cane fields from flooding during periods of heavy rain and irrigated during droughts.

Adding to the public cost, a national sugar program requires American consumers to pay twice the world price for sugar through a blend of import quotas, tariffs and loan guarantees. Congress has kept the program in place specifically for the sugar industry since 1934.

Critics of the U.S. sugar policy say the ubiquitous, addictive commodity can be imported at half the price and without environmental damage here. Supporters counter that America shouldn’t allow itself to become dependent on foreign sugar, which is cultivated cheaply throughout the Caribbean – and beyond.

Opponents from the left and right decry the sugar program with some of the harshest epithets in America’s political lexicon: corporate welfare, crony capitalism, pork barrel politics – the spoils of a political system rigged by campaign contributions and influence peddling. But supporters, too, come from both sides of the aisle, so well-oiled is the political machine that influences them.

The cane fields sit on 450,000 acres of reclaimed wetlands just below Lake Okeechobee in south-central Florida. The area is home to about 40,000 people and an economy based on farming. By contrast, some 6 million people live in the coastal zone affected by the algae – a region fueled by a great diversity of commercial activity, but especially tourism.

The economic boon of the smaller community has become the bane of the larger one. In future decades, rising temperatures and shifting rain patterns likely will worsen the plague of toxic algae.

This battle is seen by some as a test of the integrity of America’s political system, of just how freely the tools of political influence – campaign contributions, lobbying fees and the blandishments and acts of ingratiation that often come with them – can be leveraged to put the full benefit of nature’s bounty in a few hands while spreading the costs, including pollution and despoliation, across the rest of society. Because only a fraction of the sugar cane fields is being sought to solve the algae problem, some see it as a test of whether special interests can use these perfectly legal tools of modern American democracy to run roughshod over the broader public interest.

At the hub of the dispute is Lake Okeechobee – one of the nation’s largest lakes, the wellspring of the Everglades and the freshwater heart of South Florida.

For 6,000 years, excess groundwater has spilled over the southern rim of the lake, nourishing the Everglades before draining into the Florida Bay. To make way for the cane fields, engineers raised and fortified the lake’s southern shore, funneling all that excess groundwater through an array of canals, levees and pumping stations into two rivers that then dump it into the sea along Florida’s east and west coasts.

This cleared the way for the cane fields, but choked off water to the rest of the Everglades. It also infected the two rivers and South Florida’s coastlines with toxic algae.

Even more fearsome – it created a ticking time bomb in the form of a seeping dike that, should the right storm come along, could lay waste to everything and everybody in its path.

 VR icon

Deadly Dike

Last January, record rains fell across central Florida, threatening the fragile dike that lines Lake Okeechobee’s southern rim. If the dike had failed then, the lake’s torrent of unleashed water could have killed tens of thousands of people and washed out a vast swath of cropland. In 1928, the dike ruptured, killing at least 2,500 people – the second-deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Today, because of Florida’s burgeoning population, the impact could be far worse.

So the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with an eye on the rising lake, reduced the risk by opening sluice gates and sending billions of gallons of lake water a day cascading east and west through the network of canals and rivers into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

The dike was spared, as were the sugar cane fields and people who work and live around them.

But along the Atlantic coast, the lake’s fertilizer-infused water spawned giant plumes of toxic algae, turning the ocean the color of coffee and coating the shore in slime. The fouling of the ocean was an ecological and economic calamity for South Florida’s Treasure Coast, coming as it did during the height of the winter tourist season.

The Corps, which manages the nation’s water resources, figured the costs to the coast paled in comparison to the potential loss of human life if the dike failed – a cataclysm that could be far deadlier than the 2005 failure of levees in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Adding to the concern, the 143-mile-long dike, named in the 1930s after former-president Herbert Hoover, had been built piecemeal over 135 years, beginning in the 19 century with sand, shells and muck. It leaks and is in constant need of inspection and repair.

The higher the level of the lake, the higher the risk of a failure. As the Corps sees it, the sea is its only safety valve when the lake becomes too full.

“We’re making choices between trying to protect the integrity of the dike – the safety of the people who live and work around the lake – or upsetting the balance of a delicate ecological system,” said Corps spokesman John Campbell.

Domino Effect

The decision to release the lake water reignited a bitter political and legal battle pitting South Florida’s coastal residents, businesses and environmentalists against the state’s powerful sugar industry.

Coastal fishing guide Mike Connor said his business is off 50 percent this year because of the algae blooms. His losses “trickle up” through Florida’s tourism-driven coastal economy, he said.

“We put people in the water, they have to stay in a hotel,” Connor explained. “They go to restaurants. They go to the movies at night. They rent a car here. They buy gas here.… If they’re not here in my boat fishing, they aren’t here.”

Farmers south of Lake Okeechobee make a similar argument. Their economy would be hurt if tens of thousands of acres of cropland were taken out of service to restore the natural flow of water south through the Everglades.

“It would be a domino effect,” said sugar cane grower Keith Wedgworth. “If you lose one of the sugar mills, the hardware store, the parts store, the lumber store, it would be a domino effect around the Glades.”

“We’re the small population, so it’s easy to blame us.”

Wedgworth, a fourth-generation Everglades farmer, cultivates 8,000 acres of sugar cane and 1,000 acres of rice on reclaimed land south of the dike.

“We’re the small population, so it’s easy to blame us,” he said.

Money Talks

Connor, the fishing guide, said public officials in Tallahassee favor central Florida’s sparsely populated inland farming community at the expense of south Florida’s sprawling coastal metropolis because of the sugar industry’s out-sized political influence.

“Florida’s the sport fishing capital of the world… but our politicians from the governor on down aren’t treating it like the sport fishing capital,” Connor said. “They’re letting the water go to hell…. The Ag industry, the chief being sugar, has so much influence in Tallahassee and Washington. They’re at the top of the totem pole; we’re way down here.”

That point was underscored during a GOP presidential debate earlier this year when Texas Sen. Ted Cruz took a swipe at one of his rivals for the nomination, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a champion of the sugar industry.

“Sugar farmers farm under roughly 0.2 percent of the farmland in America, and yet they give 40 percent of the lobbying money,” Cruz asserted to Rubio, a beneficiary of the sugar industry’s political largesse.

Rubio is hardly the only politician to benefit from the sugar industry’s generosity. So far in the 2016 election cycle, Florida’s two largest sugar companies – Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar – have given federal candidates almost $3 million in campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiles federal campaign finance data.

"Sugar farmers farm under roughly 0.2 percent of the farmland in America, and yet they give 40 percent of the lobbying money."

During that same two-year period, the two companies paid out more than $3.6 million to federal lobbyists and the Florida Sugar Cane League added another $2 million.

These and other sugar interests also dispense political money in Tallahassee. They use contributions and lobbyists to gain influence with lawmakers of both parties, the better to hedge against electoral uncertainty, especially at the federal level.

Tales of Influence

Like most lobbying, sugar lobbying is conducted in the shadows as much as possible. But sometimes it finds its way into the spotlight.

Florida Crystals, which includes the Domino brand, is owned by a family that left behind its vast sugar holdings when it fled Cuba after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. The Fanjul family moved to Florida, bought reclaimed land here south of Lake Okeechobee and continued its sugar dynasty. Today, it owns 155,000 acres in what is known as the Everglades Agricultural Area and has powerful friends on both sides of the political aisle.

The Fanjul family gained some notoriety in 1998 when a commission set up to investigate then-President Bill Clinton’s relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinski discovered and reported a vivid example of the family’s Oval Office reach.

The report, prepared by Kenneth Starr, disclosed that Alfonso “Alfy” Fanjul had kept Clinton on the phone for 22 minutes in 1996 while the president was trying to explain to Lewinski that they needed to end their sexual relationship. Fanjul’s call came as Congress was considering a penny-a-pound tax on sugar companies to pay for cleaning up pollution in the Everglades. The Clinton administration withheld its support for the legislation, and it died in Congress.

Florida’s other giant sugar corporation, U.S. Sugar, has its own awkward lobbying tale, this one involving Republican officeholders in Tallahassee. The company built a hunting lodge on land it leased from the King Ranch in Texas, a prized destination for hunters. Company executives hosted Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott and GOP state lawmakers at the lodge on weekends. The fun came to an end in 2014 after the Tampa Bay Times disclosed the U.S. Sugar-financed junkets.

"They're always letting the water out. Keep it in! We won't have any droughts." - Donald Trump

Another Fanjul brother, Pepe, has co-hosted fundraisers for Donald Trump, according to published reports.

During an Oct. 11 appearance in Panama City, Trump outlined his strategy for dealing with the Lake Okeechobee releases.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “You know, Lake Okeechobee, they’re always letting the water out. Do you ever notice we always have droughts? They’re always letting the water out. Keep it in! We won’t have any droughts.”

At a more recent campaign stop, Trump added a call for the dike to be fortified.

Sweet Deal for Sugar

Flooding, algae and pollution aren’t the only items on the sugar industry’s lobbying agenda.

A top industry priority is protecting the national sugar program, a blend of import quotas, tariffs and loan guarantees that Congress has kept in place since 1934. The American Sugar Alliance, one of several sugar trade groups, says the program is “the cheapest major commodity program because sugar farmers do not receive subsidy checks.”

But opponents say it costs American consumers billions of dollars every year – and jobs.

“Last year, on average sugar cost nearly twice as much in the United States as in the rest of the world,”

“Last year, on average sugar cost nearly twice as much in the United States as in the rest of the world,” said Bryan Riley, a senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “That means higher prices when you buy your Halloween candy. It also means that your Halloween treats may well have been produced in another country, since many candy producers have had to relocate to escape high U.S. sugar prices.”

A 2015 analysis by Mark J. Perry of the American Enterprise Institute found the sugar program costs consumers and businesses more than $3 billion annually. A 2013 study by Iowa State University found the sugar program costs consumers up to $3.5 billion a year – and up to 20,000 jobs.

Defenders of the program, such as Rubio, argue that it’s needed so the United States doesn’t become dependent on other nations for sugar. But many of those same defenders have become dependent on sugar interests for campaign money. Florida Crystals gave a Rubio political group $250,000 in December 2015. Two months later, U.S. Sugar gave it $100,000.

Messing with Mother Nature

The roots of Florida’s toxic algae conflict lie in 19th century ambitions to transform vast swamps south of Lake Okeechobee, viewed as “worse than worthless,” into productive farmland. Remaking millions of acres, as explorer Buckingham Smith put it in 1848, would earn a settler “a high place in public favor, not only with his own generation, but with posterity. He will have created a State!”

To accomplish the feat, farm settlers and engineers set themselves to the task of redirecting the natural flow of an almost unimaginable volume of Florida’s ground water, which had been until then southerly through the Everglades to the peninsula’s tip and into the Florida Bay.

Initially, these early settlers fortified the southern shore of the lake with primitive muck levees that were easily overwhelmed by Florida’s rampaging storms. That led engineers to dig canals to carry excess water, when necessary, to the St Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, which run east and west, respectively.

The St. Lucie drains into the Atlantic and the Caloosahatchee into the Gulf. There, the excess freshwater from the lake would be but a mere drop in the proverbial saltwater bucket.

But for 135 years, Mother Nature has confounded these engineers in what has become an epic chess match.

Faced with adverse unintended consequences of earlier moves, succeeding generations of engineers built higher and wider levees, more canals and even reservoirs in a vain effort to defy 6,000 years of natural order and keep the shallow, 730-square-mile lake in its bed during the kind of heavy rains and stiff winds Florida is famous for, the kind that can whip up an angry, powerful, southerly surge in the lake bed that, if it were to rupture the dike, would unleash the force and fury of a great tsunami plunging downhill through a naked basin of farm fields and small towns.

Mother Nature let it be known from the start that tampering with her wouldn’t be easy. Shortly after the first canal was put into service in 1881, water released from the lake flooded property along the Caloosahatchee River, drawing protests from land owners.  

In 1926, a hurricane ruptured the dike, killing 300 people.

Two years later, another hurricane burst the dike, this time killing at least 2,500. Many bodies were washed into the Everglades never to be found, some likely devoured by alligators or picked at by turkey vultures – or perhaps worked on by other scavengers and decomposers of the glades. In any case, they were absorbed one way or the other into the muck of the swamp itself. Some recovered bodies were interred anonymously in mass graves.

In her 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” novelist, folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston drew on her full pallet of skills to conjure the horror endured by migrant workers washed away by the hurricane of 1928, many of them, like herself, the children of slaves, but all of them without warning or means of escape – offering a hint of what might yet lie in store for residents of modern-day towns like Clewiston, Belle Glade and Pahokee.

“A huge barrier of the makings of the dike to which the cabins had been added was rolling and tumbling forward,” she wrote. “Ten feet higher and as far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left its bed…. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.”

In 1947, a hurricane-driven surge topped the dike, causing extensive damage to agriculture and widespread loss of livestock and wildlife, but no human deaths.

The current state of the effort to keep the “monstropolous beast” confined to its bed is a sprawling, jerry-rigged plumbing system consisting of 2,100 miles of canals, 2,000 miles of levees and 71 major pumping stations.

Operating at an annual cost of three-quarters of a billion dollars, this Rube Goldberg machine provides flood control for the region.

Operating at an annual cost of three-quarters of a billion dollars, it provides flood control for the region. It also keeps the reclaimed farmland south of the lake from flooding during periods of heavy rain and irrigated during drought.

To the outrage of many coastal residents, fertilizer-infused water from the cane fields is even “back pumped” into the lake during periods of heavy rain to keep the fields and towns from flooding. There, it adds to the risk of a dike failure and increases the amount of phosphorus-filled water that must be discharged into the sea, where it nourishes the plumes of toxic algae that drive off fish, kill off oyster beds, endanger the health of children and undermine the local economy.

Toxic Runoff

If the Herbert Hoover Dike is the strategy’s terrifying Achilles Heel waiting to rupture, fertilizer is the steady drip, drip, drip of poison spreading certain death throughout South Florida’s ecosystem.

It starts with runoff from suburbs, golf courses and farms well north of the lake. It drains into the Kissimmee River. From there, it flows into Lake Okeechobee. During periods of heavy rain, the lake water, laced with phosphorus, is discharged into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers and eventually the sea.

Along its journey, the phosphorus nourishes plant life, causing algae blooms, which decreases the amount of oxygen available for aquatic animals. This, plus the fact that the excess fresh water pouring into the ocean reduces the salinity of coastal estuaries, is killing oyster beds and driving off fish.

It’s a dark and downward spiral.

The most recent hope for a reversal came in 2008 when then-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican at the time, announced the state and U.S. Sugar had reached an agreement under which Florida would buy out the company, including it’s land, about 180,000 acres, and send the water south again. Toxins would be laundered naturally as the water made its long journey through grassy swampland to the Florida Bay. The natural order would be restored.

“I can envision no better gift to the Everglades, the people of Florida and the people of America — as well as our planet — than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the key to true restoration,” Crist said when he announced the deal with great fanfare.

U.S. Sugar doesn’t want to give up its lucrative sugar operations.

But state officials, citing the severe financial impact of the Great Recession, purchased only one-seventh of the land. Eight years later, the state shows no interest in exercising its option to buy the rest, an option that’s good through 2020. This, despite an economic recovery and an overwhelming vote by Floridians in 2014 to accept a tax specifically to buy the land. The tax, a documentation fee on real estate transactions, is being collected but the legislature isn’t using the revenue to buy the land. This helped stoke the fury of coastal residents protesting the algae blooms with chants of “Buy the land” and “Send the water south.”

U.S. Sugar, which is widely portrayed as wanting to keep its land, wouldn’t speak publicly for this article. However, critics of the land purchase within the sugar industry have argued that the better solution is to build water treatment plants to remove the phosphorus before it flows into the lake. Sending the water south, they say, is no longer viable because of engineering costs and uncertainties. The Cape Sable seaside sparrow could be endangered and gains in cleaning up Everglades National Park could be imperiled, they argue.

A Lack of Consensus

Wedgworth, the farmer who grows sugar cane on reclaimed land south of Lake Okeechobee, says the real pollution culprit is 30 years of development north of the lake, beginning in the Orlando area and spreading south. It’s the inevitable result of proliferating septic tanks, golf courses and subdivisions, he said.

A 2011 state government report traced 29 percent of the phosphorus in the lake to urban runoff; agriculture, especially cattle ranches north of the lake, accounted for much of the rest. Sugar cane cultivation, which is concentrated south of the lake, accounted for less than 10 percent of the lake’s phosphorus, according to the March 2011 update of the Lake Okeechobee Protection Plan.

However, the creation of the Everglades Agricultural Area, where the sugar cane is grown, is the entire reason the water was diverted from its natural course in the first place and the main source of opposition to redirecting its flow today.

“If you think the problem is north of the lake and the problem is what’s ending up in Lake Okeechobee then wouldn’t you want to solve the problem where the problem is taking place?” Wedgworth asked. “There’s something like 40 different projects on the books right now and they say that once all these projects come on line and they fix the dike around the lake it will solve more or less all the problems.”

Indeed, water storage and treatment facilities north of the lake are part of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, which has a price tag of $10.5 billion and a 35-year timetable. Despite its bold ambitions, plenty of dissension continues over details, and its funding is uncertain. Opponents question whether the plan is viable without sending more water south to the Everglades, where it’s needed.

Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers recently came up with a blueprint for completing the first major overhaul of the Herbert Hoover Dike in 75 years. All that’s needed is for taxpayers to come up with $830 million to finish what would be a $1.7 billion rehab.

But bolstering the dike won’t end the need for lake releases.

Given the vagaries of politics and government funding, promises to bolster the dike and build out the water treatment system aren’t guarantees the pollution will stop flowing into Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades will stop dying, toxic algae will stop blooming or the “monstropolous beast” will stay in its bed.

With the freshwater heart of South Florida pumping deadly toxins into the sea for the foreseeable future, the long, costly effort to turn swampland into cropland must find a way to overcome its own haunted history of hubris — a legacy whose dark underside includes death, destruction and despoliation.

If William Shakespeare was right when he wrote in his epic play “The Tempest” that what’s past is prologue, Florida’s political leaders might want to weigh carefully the needs of their campaign war chests against the spiraling cost of sugar cane to the Sunshine State.

A sense of urgency might be in order. Nature’s unforgiving forces are on the rise.

Documentary Credits:

Correspondent: Kait Parker
Produced and Directed by Spencer Wilking
Executive Producers: Greg Gilderman, Shawn Efran, Neil Katz
Producers: Kait Parker, Marc Stern, Craig Wilson
Director of Photography: Andy Bowley
Editor: Conor Flynn
Finishing Editing: Brandon Kieffer
Assistant Editor: Jake Cummins
Drone Operator: Alex Mandiola
Additional Camera: Spencer Wilking
Graphics: Dorian Orange
Transcription: Casey Dillion, David Bertoldi
Archival Footage: Rebecca Pugh, Daniel Wright

Article Credits:

Written by Marcus Stern
Reported by Marcus Stern with Kait Parker and Spencer Wilking
Edited by Keith Epstein
Copyedited by Richard H.P. Sia

Interactive Credits:

Photo Editing by Nicole Bonaccorso
Web Development by Eric Devlin