U.S. Sugar’s Full Response to the TC Palm

Following a barage of attacks from environmental critics related to the Lake Okeechobee releases, U.S. Sugar began responding through newspaper advertisements in Southwest Florida and the Treasure Coast, on our digital platforms, and through the media. Recently, our ads running in the Treasure Coast newspapers were the subject of a fact-check story in the same newspaper. Below, please find our entire response that was sent to Tyler Treadway. Read the full article here.

Statement from Judy Sanchez, Senior Director for Corporate Communications and Public Affairs at U.S. Sugar

“Due to a blatant distortion of the facts being spread by certain environmental critics who are funded by wealthy hedge fund billionaires through publications like The Stuart News, we are responding with facts and data from some of the most knowledgeable scientists and engineers involved in South Florida water management and ecosystem restoration.”

Questions & Responses:

The ad headlined “Here are the facts about moving Lake Okeechobee water south” includes this statement: “What are some of the causes? An antiquated, 60-year-old flood control system, an aging dike that limits Lake Okeechobee’s capacity to hold water, lack of funding of planned projects that would redirect, hold and treat water both north and south of the lake.”

Question: How do you rectify the last part of that statement that funding planned projects would solve the problem when the University of Florida Water Institute says on page 130 of its March 2015 report for the Florida Senate on how to end Lake O discharges: “Existing and currently authorized storage and treatment projects are insufficient to achieve these goals”?

We agree with the University of Florida. We never said that the existing and currently authorized projects would fix 100% of the problem. However, the $5.5 Billion plan builds the highest priority projects first and, as the UF study says in its summary, pg. 31, “To provide substantial improvement to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, accelerate the funding and completion of existing federally authorized CERP projects designed specifically to provide relief to St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee basins.” The specific UF recommendation cited (#3) is to “Develop a strategic plan for the next increment of south-of-lake storage, treatment and conveyance to pursue beyond CEPP to take advantage of new north-of-lake storage and treatment, and more closely meet the performance targets of both the estuaries and the Everglades ecosystems.” Note: this recommendation does not specifically say to buy more land.

Spending a lot of public money on buying active farmland that is not part of the Priority Plan will only distract government from completing the mission started nearly 20 years ago through the development of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP).

If it is determined that additional storage is needed in the EAA after Central Everglades Planning Process (CEPP), Restoration Strategies and Modified Water Deliveries Project are implemented, storage in the A-1 and A-2 Reservoirs can be increased to a total of up to 360,000 acre feet by simply increasing the levee height and pump capacity without having to purchase additional lands. This is a much more COST effective storage solution on land already in public ownership in a more strategic location at the SOUTHERN end of the EAA. The UF report also recommended considering alternative storage options on large land parcels ALREADY in public ownership.

It’s worth noting that the UF study leaves out dry seasonal demands of the park as well as the other restoration goals of the system. It only looked at reducing lake discharges to the estuaries — which IS NOT and CANNOT be the sole purpose of restoration. Also, UF did not do any original or independent modeling. They were expressing their opinion on already available data.

The question cherry picks one part of the UF study and fails to also acknowledge the study’s first two conclusions. They are:

1. Accelerate funding and completion of existing approved projects

2. Provide Water Storage and Treatment North of Lake Okeechobee

Finally, it continues to ignore constraints to sending water south, including physical barriers, federal regulations, water quality, seepage, wildlife concerns, etc.

That same ad states: “Will buying expensive farm land south of Lake Okeechobee solve the problem?” and goes on to imply that it won’t, noting the state has already bought nearly 120,000 south of the lake.

Question: Doesn’t that run counter to the UF Water Institute report, which states on page 133, “Achieving substantial reduction in lake-triggered discharges to the estuaries … will require between 11,000 and 129,000 acres of additional land between the lake and the (Everglades Protection Area), depending on the mix of storage and treatment options”?

Same as #1. The UF Study also said “Reconsider using the Talisman property for a deep storage reservoir with STA.” (p.8)

It should also be noted that Lake Okeechobee has regulatory Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) and Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDLs) in place. If your proposed solution to the estuary water issues is to continue to flow large amounts of untreated water through Lake Okeechobee (with no concern for its health or that of flora and fauna that depend upon a healthy Lake) to store it somewhere south, the state environmental and regulatory communities will have major problems with that.

The ad headlined “The facts about U.S. sugar and Lake Okeechobee water” states: “(W)ater leaves our farms far cleaner than when it left (Lake Okeechobee). Last year alone, water that left our farms was twice as clean as water from Lake O.”

Question: While that’s true for water year May 1, 2014, to April 30, 2015, it’s not always the case. Some years, lake water is cleaner than water coming off the sugar cane fields. For the five years ending April 2014, the lake water was 110 parts per billion of phosphorus, water of the EAA was 111 parts per billion. Do you think choosing one year gives readers a complete picture of the situation?

Seriously, Tyler? You’re hanging your hat on lake water being 1 ppb less than farm water — did you know that the margin of error for water quality labs is +/- 2 ppb. So with your numbers, water quality was a wash. For a longer term view, see the attached chart regarding the last 30 years, Lake O discharges vs. EAA discharges. In 17 out of the last 20 years, the EAA water is better than Lake O — significantly lower in phosphorus after Best Management Practices were fully implemented in 1995.

We believe that this gives an accurate picture, certainly more accurate than the numerous times in the TC Palm where runoff from the EAA is labeled as toxic. Regardless of the period of record, it is indisputable that the growers in the Everglades Agricultural Area have reduced phosphorus runoff from their property by an astonishing 56 percent since the inception of the source control program in the mid 1990s. Last year, the farmers achieved a historic 79 percent annual reduction. In fact, we’ve achieved the record 79% twice in the last five years. Compare those numbers to the P levels in the St. Lucie basin, which has some of the highest numbers in the 16-county SFWMD.

Also, the water pumped back into Lake Okeechobee is not water that has been cleaned through on-farm BMPs. It is primarily untreated water from the communities south of Lake Okeechobee. According to SFWMD’s annual water quality report, in 2015, the water leaving the Everglades Agricultural Area averaged 47 parts per billion.

The same ad says: “95 percent of all water that flows into Lake Okeechobee comes from the north — from Orlando and the Kissimmee (River) Basin.”

An accompanying map purporting to show the Kissimmee basin wraps around the east and west sides of Lake O, even south of the C-44 Canal that leads east from the lake to the St. Lucie River and the C-43 Canal leading west to the Caloosahatchee River. Land south of the canals clearly isn’t in the Kissimmee basin. Question: Do you think that’s accurate?

According to SFWMD’s data, only 3 percent comes from the south (and 2% from the west where sugarcane farms are located). The ad does not say that everything from the north comes from the Kissimmee basin. Since misleading comments printed in your newspaper have placed the blame for the water, the discharges and just about everything on sugarcane farmers South of the Lake, our point was that 95% of the inflow comes from areas other than the south (specifically, the Everglades Agricultural Area) The ad uses the definition of the southern inflows defined by Florida Department of Environmental Protection in the BMAP.

The ad headlined “The water that winds up in our local waterways” states: “According to South Florida Water Management, over the past five years, 21 percent of Lake O water is discharged to the St. Lucie River … the rest came from rainfall, irrigation and runoff across Martin and St. Lucie counties.”

Question: The period chosen here is not very representative of the situation. Do you think it would be more accurate to tell readers that between 1995 and 2015 the lake discharges accounted for 29 percent of the water entering the estuary and amount of water entering the estuary from the “coastal basin,” basically the river’s natural basin, be 17 percent?

Whether you use 21% or 29% the message is that at least 70% — 80% comes from sources other than the Lake. The estuary’s “natural basin” is not very well defined but certainly includes more than what you are calling the “coastal Basin.” The misconception in Martin County, largely reinforced by the TC Palm, is that if flow from the lake could be eliminated there would be no problem, and that is clearly not the case. 1995–2015 also includes three different lake regulation schedules, and the last five years includes the current Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS8) which is likely to be in place for many years until the levee is fixed.

The same ad says: “The rainfall, runoff and irrigation drains into local canals like Ten Mile Creek, the C-24 and C-23, and then into the North Fork of the St. Lucie River.”

Question: Do your think calling the C-23 and C-24 canals “local” is accurate?

The canals were dug into western Martin and St. Lucie counties to drain agriculture fields and citrus groves. Together with the C-44 Canal, which was cut to connect the St. Lucie River with Lake Okeechobee and is called “local” on the ad’s map, the canals enlarged the river’s natural watershed by 250,000 acres.

We use the term “local” to distinguish them from the water that being discharged out of Lake Okeechobee. These basins historically drained to the St. Lucie estuary with above ground flow. Canals were dug everywhere in South Florida, and except for the connection to Lake Okeechobee, these canals typically drain today where they did historically, and the C-23, C-24, C-25 and C-44 basins primarily flowed east to the estuary. In Martin County, for example, a mosaic of rural communities are located along these canals.

The impact of this basin was considered in the UF study, which said on page 130: “On average, 70–80% of the freshwater discharge and 65–80% of the nutrient load to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries originates in the local basins, with the remaining balance contributed from Lake Okeechobee”

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