A recent column by Stephen Prendiville and Leland Garvin repeated the same, tired old smear tactics attacking farmers for the environmental problems of a century of drainage and development of the entire South Florida ecosystem. It is ridiculous to blame sugarcane farmers for all our water ills, and that is why we participated in a news conference to try and stick to the facts.
As for the discharges from Lake Okeechobee, let me tell you that the water within Lake Okeechobee is healthy. The fishing on our lake is the best that it has been in decades. There have been a number of high-profile bass tournaments held on Lake O over the last few weeks, and the water has been fine. It is a freshwater lake, brownish colored by natural tannins — but that doesn’t make it dirty or polluted.
However, decades of scientific data clearly shows that up to 80 percent of the nutrients (pollution) are being added in the local area basins. As mentioned in our news conference in Fort Myers recently, our regional problems need a regional strategy that requires we all work together. Blaming farmers won't fix the problems.
Prendiville/Garvin also mischaracterized conclusions of the University of Florida water study. It identified the construction of the projects already in the pipeline (CERP, CEPP, Restoration Strategies) as the most expedient and impactful way to further restoration. In finding solutions, the fiscal reality in Tallahassee cannot be ignored. Every dollar spent to buy more land detracts from finishing the construction and operation of meaningful restoration projects that have been on the table for more than a decade and will help reduce discharges.
"Big Sugar" may be a convenient target, but the data consistently shows - and the SFWMD scientists agree - that only 4 percent of the phosphorous is coming from the communities south of the lake. Those communities are cities like Clewiston, Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay, whose residents deserve basic flood protection just as much as coastal residents. Also, my husband is a sugarcane grower, and I can state plainly that sugarcane farmers do not get government subsidies. Check the recent Farm Bill, see that there is zero budgeted in payments for sugarcane growers.
It would be a good idea for folks like Prendiville and Garvin to visit our communities, get the facts and learn how the water really flows. Our water south of the Lake has been less than one percent of the flow into Lake Okeechobee for the last decade. We are not the cause of the discharges, and flooding our communities is not the solution. It’s time to work together to support projects that will reduce discharges and store and clean more water at its source.
Hillary Hyslope is executive director of the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce.