Everglades Trust singles out “Big Sugar,” but letters show broad coalition opposing lower lake levels

by | May 4, 2020

The Everglades Foundation/Trust, never folks to let a good crisis go to waste, is at it again. This time it’s the coronavirus pandemic. Another opportunity to spin a yarn and fleece the daylights out of the anti-sugar crowd.
The Trust’s latest social media blitz, “SILENT, SNEAKY SUGAR PLAN EXPOSED!”  It’s all over Facebook — posted several times a day since Friday.
“Sugar lobbyists (are) trying to slip in language in Washington while no one is looking,” it proclaims.
“Under the cover of a global pandemic, lobbyists for the sugar cartel are trying to slip in language to the federal Water Resources & Development Act (WRDA) of 2020 that will make toxic discharges more likely and starve the Everglades and Florida Bay of the freshwater they desperately need. Certain members of Florida’s congressional delegation, including RICK SCOTT and ALCEE HASTINGS, will reserve Florida’s water for corporate agricultural use south of Lake Okeechobee to the detriment of the drinking water supply for almost 9 million Floridians, public health and our environment, especially the Everglades.”
No such thing is happening.
There is no sneak attack, no sugar-lobbyist cartel, no plan to take any more water for agriculture than is already provided for in Section 601(h)(5) of Public Law 106-541.
The real story is, pressured from all sides by congressman for the Treasure Coast Brian Mast and the Everglades Foundation/Trust, along with activist groups in Martin County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is writing a new operating manual for the lake that ignores Section 601(h)(5), known as the Savings Clause. The Corps has decided to interpret the law as if Lake Okeechobee is not part of Water Resources Development Act of 2000, therefore, the water supply protections in the Savings Clause will not apply.
Instead, the Lake’s stakeholders — which includes 6 million residents of South Florida (far more than just sugar farmers): municipalities, businesses, agriculture interests and the indiginous people who live on tribal lands in the Everglades — will be permanently consigned “to the diminished (water) supply available when the Lake was lowered temporarily to repair the (Herbert Hoover) Dike.”
It turns out that efforts to permanently lower the level of Lake Okeechobee in the name of preventing the spread of algal blooms may sound like a good idea on the face of it, but actually puts the desires of a relatively small group of noisy activists ahead of the needs of nearly one-third of the state’s population: the more than six million people who rely on the lake for water.
So, where is the Big Sugar “sneak attack” the Everglades Trust folks are trying to sell? If you can find one, your eyes are sleuthier than mine. Stakeholders don’t want any more or less water than they’ve had for 20 years.
Have a look at the four letters I think the Trust is talking about. They come from dozens of organizations and individuals to push back against the Corps’ decision. Seems to me all they do is implore Florida leaders to continue protecting public health and the environment, and honor the will and wisdom of the 2000 Congress.
1. An April 23 letter from 56 stakeholders to Florida District 25 Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart — “Re: Request to Protect Florida’s Critical Water Supply from Lake Okeechobee.” They ask that “Congress re-assert its prior direction to the Corps to protect our water supply with the clarifying language (of the Savings Clause) attached for your consideration.” The letter is signed by such diverse parties as the City of West Palm Beach, City of Lake Worth Drainage District, the Martin County Farm Bureau, U.S. Sugar Corp., the South Florida Water Coalition, even Henry Dean, former executive director of the South Florida Water Management District. The proposed clarifying language: “Section 601(h)(5) of Public Law 106-541 applies to the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule and the Secretary shall use the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule in place in December 2000 as the base condition for the analysis required under Section 601(h)(5) of Public Law 106-541.”
2. An April 28 letter from the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County to Florida District 20 Congressman Alcee Hastings — “Re: Request to Protect Florida’s Critical Water Supply from Lake Okeechobee.” Kelly Smallridge, BDB president and CEO, tells Hastings, “The Corps claims the Lake is not part of WRDA 2000 and, therefore, the water supply protections in the Savings Clause will not apply. This position is not supported by WRDA 2000 and betrays the promises the Corps made to us in 2000. The Corps seeks to unilaterally free itself of complying with WRDA 2000. If allowed to do so, Florida’s existing and future water supply will be jeopardized at a time when we need assurances that sufficient water will be available for everyone.” The Board’s proposed clarifying language: “Section 601(h)(5) of Public Law 106-541 applies to the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule and the Secretaiy shall use the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule in place in December 2000 as the base condition for the analysis required under Section 601(h)(5) of Public Law 106-541.”
3. A no-nonsense April 28 letter from The Nature Conservancy to Florida District 21 Congresswoman Lois Frankel — “Subject:  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan Mandate to Protect Water Supply from Lake Okeechobee for Florida’s Citizens and the Natural System.” Temperince Morgan, Conservancy executive director, writes, “We believe that the USACE’s (Army Corps’) failure to apply the Savings Clause will have unintended consequences for both natural systems downstream of the Lake and for Lower East Coast water supply — both of which rely on water from the Lake, particularly under dry season and drought conditions. Moreover, we are concerned that the USACE’s failure to apply the Savings Clause will undermine the coalition that is critical for successful CERP implementation.” Morgan wants this amendment for Section 1106 of the Water Resources Development Act of 2018: “The Secretary shall expedite completion of the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule to coincide with the completion of the Herbert Hoover Dike project, and may consider shall incorporate all relevant aspects of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan described in section 601 of the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 (114 Stat. 2680), including the provisions of section 601 (h)(5) Savings Clause.”
4. An April 30 letter from The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida to Gov. Ron DeSantis — “Subject: Water Management in Florida.” Tribal Chairman Billy Cypress makes some points in his letter that the other letters did not: “The same political influences that drove the mismanagement of Lake Okeechobee water levels are now calling for water levels to be managed at 10.5 feet.” He claims the Tribe’s airboats can’t operate in such low water and calls it “cultural genocide for the Miccosukee people. … The Everglades is a unique system and must be managed as a system — not just for the exclusive benefit or to the detriment of one area. Most scientists and ecologists agree that Lake Okeechobee should be managed between 12.5 feet on the low end and 15.5 feet on the high end. Yet, today the water levels in Lake Okeechobee are 11.44 feet and still dropping. This was a failure to manage lake levels earlier in the year (not weather related). Future management of the lake at 10.5 feet will increase the frequency of Minimum Flows and Levels exceedances which will result in multiple violations of state law.” Such deviations from the Water Regulation Schedule, the Tribe writes, “are ecologically destructive to the natural system, increase saltwater intrusion into our drinking water aquifer, and harm agricultural irrigation.”
After seeing the issue from the point of view of this broad coalition of businesses, local officials, indigenous tribes, and conservation groups, The Everglades Trust’s pitch sounds desperate.
How do you champion keeping the lake three feet lower than it should be, then blame Sugar for “starving the Everglades and Florida Bay of the freshwater they desperately need”? Ask the Everglades Trust where the water came from that put out the 768-acre wild fire April 20 in Everglades National Park.  And what happens when all those towns carved out of the Everglades, too far West to have fire hydrants — Royal Palm Beach, Wellington, Plantation among them — have to fight a fire? What they do is run their hoses from the nearest canal. All of those municipalities are Lake Okeechobee stakeholders, and right now the canals are woefully low.
With the economy in freefall, I’m thinking the Everglades Foundation and Everglades Trust needed something to stimulate donations and keep their anti-sugar narrative going. I just don’t think Facebook-blitzing a “sneak attack” on Florida’s environment — blaming guys who emerged as community heroes during the pandemic — is resonating.
Stuart resident Nancy Smith worked in various writing and editing roles at The Stuart News/Port St. Lucie News, including managing editor, from 1977 until she retired in 2005. In 2010 she returned to work as executive editor of the Tallahassee-based Sunshine State News, from which she retired in November 2019.


  1. Alejandro Venezuela

    So, broad coalition support via Everglades Trust = money-grubbing conspiracy.

    Broad coalition support via sugar industry using verbatim form letters sent after sugar-industry-orchestrated meetings = not conspiracy….?

    Anyone who claims we should be doing everything we committed to in 2000 to solve Everglades problems needs to take their VCR off of pause. Ag has had a good run with the free water they’ve been disproportionately allotted for the last 100 years. Remember this little detail: we “drained the (literal) swamp” at public expense for ag and the “black gold” that was at the bottom of the once-healthy Everglades. We did so while overconsuming sugar as a nation and while subsidizing and making shady land deals with the industry in South Florida. Time to do something different. Time to start charging what fresh water is worth relative to its rarity. Time to put more black and brown faces at the environmental-decisionmaking table.

    Not time to rewind the tape to 2000, press “play,” and hope for the next century that we get different results.

    • Anonymous

      Sounded good… right up to where you brought race into it…

  2. Nancy Smith

    “… disproportionately allotted for the last 100 years” is history revisionism at its most egregious. If Alejandro Venezuela is your real name, I couldn’t find you, but I’d like to discuss Everglades history with you, I really would, particularly the part about who was responsible for draining the Everglades and why. Keeping the lake level at 10 feet is simply too high a price for Florida to pay to satisfy your grudge against sugar.

  3. David Edwards

    Another northerner that cares about lining their pockets over the rest of our lives.

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