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'Not even close': Clean-up of Everglades water polluted by Big Sugar struggles to keep up

South Bay, Florida: Worker Jean Tidane (foreground) wades in the water while planting Bulrush for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West as part of a vegetation management program. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project.
Patrick Farrell for WLRN News
South Bay, Florida: Worker Jean Tidane (foreground) wades in the water while planting Bulrush for the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) in Stormwater Treatment Area 1 West as part of a vegetation management program. A 30-year plan to restore the Everglades impacts millions of people who live, work and play in South Florida, from fishing captains and others who make their living on the water to birders and recreationists to scientists, Miccosukees and environmentalists who have invested professional and personal lives in the world’s largest environmental restoration project.

WLRN's new podcast Bright Lit Place explores the frustrating failure of the state and federal government to follow through with a project to restore the Everglades for the last 23 years.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle is cleaning the Glades water polluted by phosphorous and other nutrients that run off from sugar cane farms. That brings the Bright Lit Place podcast to the perennial Everglades issue of Big Sugar: the politically powerful industry led by U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals. Unless Big Sugar gives up more of the vast acreage it owns to the water restoration work, the overall Everglades restoration campaign may well remain stalled.

Bright Lit Place — a name given to the Everglades by the Miccosukee tribe that lives there — is reported and narrated by WLRN Environment Editor Jenny Staletovich, and she spoke with South Florida Roundup host Tim Padgett last Friday about the episode “The Reverse Farm,” which examines those hurdles.

They recalled how Florida’s Big Sugar barons, such as Alfonso Fanjul, whose family owns Florida Crystals, have for decades resisted state and federal efforts to cede the land necessary for vital water storage and clean-up. That obstruction has included phone calls from Fanjul to U.S. Presidents like Bill Clinton.

READ MORE: The Everglades is dying. Our new podcast looks at the struggle to save it — and the costs of failure

In the Everglades, which is also known as the River of Grass, Florida Crystals controls almost 200,000 acres in the agricultural area below Lake Okeechobee.

“And they’ve always had a fleet of lobbyists and have been a major player in how Everglades restoration has unfolded over the years,” Staletovich said.

The Everglades reality, Staletovich stressed, is that the water that flows into it passes through “a half million acres of farm fields that are fertilized" to produce mostly sugar cane. The Everglades restoration effort started because of that nutrient pollution, especially phosphorous.

“What that pollution does is supercharge the growth of other things like cattails that clog up this river of grass that keeps our South Florida aquifers recharged and full, and Florida Bay fresh and healthy, and also Biscayne Bay," she added.

Big Sugar has complicated, if not exacerbated, the problem of de-polluting the water in order to realize the ecosystem’s general restoration, Staletovich said.

“They have repeatedly lobbied and objected to efforts to expand storage and treatment areas — as well as clean-up efforts that started with a lawsuit filed in the 1980s," said Staletovich.

"The state wanted to tax them a penny-a-pound for sugar to help pay for that clean-up plan – and they bitterly fought that and succeeded. And so the cost for all that clean-up has fallen on taxpayers.

“Just last year we spent $91 million on storage treatment areas alone.”

Staletovich also noted that, to Big Sugar’s credit, it did approach then Florida Governor Charlie Crist in 2008 with a plan to sell some 180,000 acres to the state for water clean-up purposes. But a raft of complications – especially accusations that Big Sugar-friendly appraisers significantly overpriced the land – caused the transaction to fall apart.

For the Bright Lit Place podcast, Staletovich and WLRN reached out to Big Sugar to answer the criticism leveled at the industry vis-a-vis Everglades restoration; but the companies did not respond.

The 'reverse farm'

Despite the Big Sugar controversy, Bright Lit Place looks at the work that is in fact being done to reverse Everglades water pollution — hence the podcast episode’s title, “The Reverse Farm.” Staletovich and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Patrick Farrell visited the storage and clean-up “farms.”

“These are massive treatment marshes — some 57,000 acres — that came about because of that 1980s lawsuit and then the litigation the Miccosukee tribe followed up with,” she said.

“That’s a reminder that the water clean-up process is going on only because there is a court order — it’s the only part of restoration that has that power behind it. That has forced the state to spend over $880 million on these treatment marshes. They are amazingly complex and difficult to manage” – not to mention keeping away the snakes and alligators that menace the treatment workers.

Staletovich said scientists there told her the existing marshes are “already maxed out” in terms of clean-up potential — but will be asked to do even more when a new restoration reservoir is brought online soon.

The bottom line, said Staletovich: “We are not even close to getting the amount of water that the Everglades restoration plan promised.”

It’s a key reminder, she added, of the quarter century or more of broken promises Everglades restoration has suffered. And that’s due largely, she said, to the fact that the project called CERP, or Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan — which was initiated in 2000 and directed the Army Corps of Engineers to reconnect the ecosystem’s natural construction and flow — has been weighed down by political foot-dragging both in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

At the end of the day, though, Staletovich reminded listeners that the court order sets a 2025 deadline for the state to show it’s meeting the lower phosphorous levels key to Everglades water clean-up.

But, she said, this past year the National Academy of Sciences – the nonprofit group Congress commissioned to issue progress reports on this effort – warned Florida: “you’re in danger of not meeting that. They have significant concerns, because there is simply too much dirty water.”

WLRN’s Bright Lit Place podcast is a joint project with NPR supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. You can find the episodes wherever you get your podcasts or at BrightLitPlace.org, which also features resources including a multimedia explainer with photos, videos and interactive maps exploring the history of the Everglades restoration project.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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