Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Florida's Dirty Little Secret: Part Two

This is a second in a series of posts focusing on the ecological issues facing the coastal estuaries of southern Florida. Read Part One here, and Part Three here


You've heard of Big Oil. The Big Three from Detroit. And, of course, the Big Lebowski.

But have you heard of Big Sugar?

I have to admit, until I spent some quality time chasing saltwater fish in southwest Florida recently, I
An osprey surveys the stained water of San Carlos Bay in southwest
Florida. The bay turns brown when unnatural discharges of polluted
water are deposited by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' diversion
project to protect sugar cane crops during the summer wet season. 
hadn't. But, as I paddled the stained waters of San Carlos Bay and fished the chalky water off the beaches of Sanibel Island, it became clear to me that Big Sugar isn't as sweet as it sounds.

In Florida, this industry is source of great pride, particularly among those state and federal lawmakers who collect significant campaign contributions from companies like U.S. Sugar and American Crystal Sugar, or the collective lobbying group, the American Sugar Alliance.

For those living along both the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts of southern Florida, though, Big Sugar is a Big Problem.

This heavily subsidized industry is largely the cause of one of the most egregious environmental problems in the Southeast, and if you're a saltwater angler from Florida, or someone who travels to the Sunshine State to chase inshore trophies like snook, tarpon and redfish, you might already know the havoc Big Sugar wreaks on the state's southern estuaries.


Each summer, during the rainy season, an artificially limited Lake Okeechobee (its capacity has been continually reduced for well over a century to support cane fields to the south) would overflow if not for a complex network of Army Corps of Engineers locks and levees that channel tainted water into the Indian, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers. Eventually, these polluted rivers dump into their estuaries, where the frequent surges of "fresh" water turn otherwise healthy coastal habitat into brown, fetid bays and lagoons ripe with rotting sea grass and unnatural algae blooms. In the St. Lucie River Estuary, water quality can be so bad thanks to these discharges that people are warned to stay out of it entirely.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers locks send excess (and polluted) water from
Lake Okeechobee into the Indian, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers and,
eventually, their estuaries, to protect cane fields south of the lake.
Photo courtesy of the Sun-Sentinel.
Ideally, this runoff would head straight for the Everglades, perhaps the greatest natural "filter" in North America. But in its present condition--ripe with fertilizers, nitrogen and phosphorus from the cane fields and the agricultural runoff from the Kissimmee River agricultural district to the north--even the Everglades would have a hard time processing this water. And, as noted above, what was once the River of Grass is now a massive sugar cane plantation. Today, thanks to these diversions and other challenges, including a road across the 'glades--the Tamiami Trail--that essentially acts as a dam that holds back water, the Everglades only get about a third of the water they once did. This means that only a third of the water is filtered through the reeds and grass of this diminishing national treasure and deposited--clean and clear--into Florida Bay, near the northern reaches of the Florida Keys.

And, frankly, this is the way Big Sugar likes it. Every year, the industry coughs up millions in campaign contributions and lobbying expenses to ensure it can continue to conduct business as usual. This spells eventual doom for the estuaries of south Florida, and for the multi-billion-dollar recreational fishing industry that thrives when the water's as emerald green as it should be. Every year since 2000, American Crystal Sugar spent between $300,000 and $600,000 on candidates and lobbying--in 2008, the company puked up $2.1 million, and that average has jumped to over $1 million every year since.

Here's the description of American Crystal Sugar's campaign finance and lobbying profile provided by OpenSecrets.org:

American Crystal Sugar is an agricultural cooperative founded in 1899 that produces and processes sugar and sugar beets. The company has for decades maintained an active political action committee, routinely spending between $300,000 and $600,000 each election cycle through the early 2000s. In recent years, however, American Crystal Sugar PAC expenditures have grown exponentially, reaching $2.1 million during the 2008 election cycle. The company's PAC generally directs more of its money to Democratic candidates than Republican candidates. Also in recent years, the company has increased its federal lobbying expenditures significantly, spending between $1 million and $2 million in 2008 and 2009.

This New York Times photo shows the U.S. Sugar refinery near Lake
Okeechobee in south-central Florida. 
U.S. Sugar, a smaller company, but still a major player in Florida politics, spent $700,000 on candidates during the 2012 election cycle, and about $400,000 lobbying elected officials in Washington and Tallahassee.

Most federal Congressional candidates who accepted direct donations from ACS or USS cashed checks ranging from $5,000 to $16,000, and others took in funds from the American Sugar Alliance and other PACs that received contributions from the two Florida sugar giants.

Big Sugar pays to protect the status quo. But here's the kicker: you, as an American taxpayer, pay to support Big Sugar. How so? Well, Americans pay about three times the global price of sugar thanks to a federal farm program that limits imports of cheaper sugar from other countries like the Dominican Republic and Guatemala. Additionally, this program allows sugar companies to accept taxpayer-backed federal loans, and, should the price of sugar on the open market fall, these companies can repay these loans ... in sugar. Sugar the government must then sell at a loss or pay to store.

It's a sweet racket, no pun intended.

You can see why the industry fights so hard to keep things just like they are. Not only can it repay cash loans to the government in the form of an abundant commodity it has complete control over, but taxpayers also pony up the operation costs of a complex drainage system that keeps cane fields dry during the wet season (and wet during the dry season), all the while bearing no official responsibility for trashing Florida's estuaries that, if you did the math for the value of recreational fishing alone, would be worth much, much more than the sugar industry to Florida's economy.

How much more? Stay tuned. More to come.

Next: Fishing vs. Sugar. You'll be surprised.

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