The History of the South Florida Water Wars


    Looking out into the Gulf of Mexico last weekend, one could see no sign of the ugly plumes of smelly brown water that plagued our emerald shores as recently as last month. The reason for that is simple – it stopped raining, so the Army Corps of Engineers have cut back on the nutrient-laden releases from Lake Okeechobee and the runoff from farms and fields has tapered off.

    But come rainy season, the water will return – as it always does – unless the enormous political engine that runs our state is able to overcome the inertia of many years of inaction on water issues and do something about it. Though most of our readers are by now keenly aware of this issue, many may not know that this cycle has been going on for many, many years.

    Excess water from Lake Okeechobee originally flowed over the southern rim of the lake in one long, slow moving river of grass to Florida Bay – feeding the Everglades. It was in 1920 that the United States government, pushed by Florida lawmakers, began ‘reclaiming’ the Everglades by dredging and building canals to ‘drain the swamp’ just south of the lake. This caused Florida’s coastal population to explode and brought to Florida former General Motors magnate Charles Stewart Mott – an investor who founded U.S. Sugar in 1931. But sugar cane simply does not grow well in Florida’s climate naturally, even after drainage and massive applications of fertilizers like phosphorus and nitrogen. It needs water and lots of it. As with many crops, sugar is also subsidized by the federal government.

    As one scientist put it, “Paying lavish subsidies to produce sugar in Florida makes as much sense as creating a federal subsidy program to grow bananas in Massachusetts.” But pay the federal government does – beginning with the Sugar Act of 1934. As with most things federal, the program grew. Recently the GAO estimated that the federal sugar program, including price supports, import quotas, loan guarantees and other anti-market efforts, now costs taxpayers around $1.9 billion annually.

    Even with government help, however, Florida’s sugar industry remained tiny until 1959 and the Cuban Revolution. Almost overnight, all Cuban sugar was embargoed and U.S trade officials made up for the loss by offering more incentives. The Army Corps of Engineers drained even more of the Everglades, more cane was planted, and sugar began to take over south Florida. The Cuban Revolution also brought the Fanjul family, when Alfonso Fanjul – heir to the Gomez-Mena sugar empire when Castro took over – was forced to flee to the United States. Today, his sons Alphonso Jr. (Alfy) and Jose “Pepe” run Fanjul Corporation a large sugar and real estate conglomerate in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic comprised of the subsidiaries Domino Sugar, Florida Crystals, C & H Sugar, Zing Stevia, Redpath Sugar, Tate & Lyle European Sugar, La Romana International Airport and resorts near La Romana, Dominican Republic. Florida Crystals is one of the largest sugar growers in Florida.

    How did it work: In response to floods caused by hurricanes in 1947, the Army Corps of Engineers established the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project (C&SF) – building 1,400 miles of pumps, dikes and levees between the 1950s and 1971 that were used to create the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) and keep what was once the swampy northern part of the Everglades dry for farming. Below it, to serve as a water source for the teeming masses of people living on Florida’s southeast coast, lie the reservoirs known as Water Conservation Areas (once the middle part of the swamp), which is bordered by a massive north-south levee to keep the coast swamp-free. The only part of the Everglades allowed to remain natural was the southern part, created in 1947 as the Everglades National Park (ENP). In the wet summer months, excess water that would have flooded Lake Okeechobee and the EAA is drained away, some to the Water Conservation Areas (still a swamp) where it floods and drowns the wildlife there. The rest is pumped into canals connected to both the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, sending several hundred billion gallons a year of phosphorous-laden fresh water to the saltwater estuaries at the mouths of both rivers. This ‘nutrient pollution’ wrecks havoc with the delicate ecosystems there, killing fish, oysters, crabs and tourism. Meanwhile, the Everglades National Park received virtually no water except what fell there or pumped from farms in the EAA.

    The environmental movement being a relatively new phenomenon in this country, the first time the degradation of the Everglades became an issue was in the early 1970’s, when a proposal to build a jetport in the Big Cypress Swamp was challenged and denied. In 1983, newly elected Governor Bob Graham began the ‘Save Our Everglades’ campaign and, in 1986, lifted the first shovel to ‘undo’ the first C&SF project disaster – a canal that drained the Kissimmee River basin.

    As far as local water quality, that went relatively unchecked until 1986, when an algal bloom covering 1/5 of Lake Okeechobee was discovered to be the result of fertilizers coming from the EAA. This prompted a young U.S. Attorney named Dexter Lehtinen – fresh from indicting Manuel Noriega – to sue the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) over violations of water quality standards – particularly from phosphorous – in the ENP. Big Sugar responded defending the status quo and the Water War began.

    First was the 1992 presidential campaign, when Big Sugar poured millions into both Bush’s and Clinton’s coffers. When Clinton got elected, Alfy Fanjul met with Clinton’s new interior secretary, Bruce Babbitt, and persuaded him to turn the Everglades lawsuit back over to the state. The sugar industry began an all-out blitzkrieg on Florida, complete with an all-star lobbying team and big money media campaign to convince voters the phosphorous problem was overblown, along with thinly veiled threats that the EAA would be sold to developers if sugar were forced out.

    All of that resulted in the Everglades Forever Act, a controversial cleanup bill that was signed into law by Governor Lawton Chiles in 1994. The law capped industry cleanup costs at $320 million and saddled taxpayers with the rest (some $700 million). It also prevented nutrient-polluted water from being sent into the ENP, created the Stormwater Treatment Areas (STA) and lowered phosphorous levels, thus settling the lawsuit. It set the cleanup deadline at 2006, at which point state officials, not federal scientists, would determine the allowable phosphorous level. Other efforts in the 90’s met worse fates – a proposed ‘polluter’s tax’ was defeated at the ballot box in 1996 after another Big Sugar media campaign, and a phase-out of the sugar subsidy that was included in the Farm Bill of 1995 was ultimately dropped. A quote from Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho (who received $59,602 from sugar that year) summed it up, “I ain’t no Johnny Cochran, but I can defend the sugar program.”

    After a study – commissioned by then-Governor Lawton Chiles – on the effects of the C&SF was completed in 1999, Congress finally passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) in 2000 and work began – though the plan has been fraught with funding and political problems. In 2004, then-Governor Jeb Bush launched a program called Acceler8 that was designed to kick-start CERP projects, and in 2011 the Central Everglades Planning Project was created to identify projects within CERP. Creating projects and funding projects are two different things in Washington, D.C.

    While CEPP did not make it into the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) that was approved by Congress last December, Senator Bill Nelson assured Floridians last month that it would be included by this summer.

    So while some progress has been made since the 1988 Lehtinen lawsuit, many things have not changed.

    Every time the water flowing to the east and west coast turns brown, there is a public outcry. The Island Sand Paper has covered water quality issues from its founding in 2001. During a brown water period in 2004, Sand Paper Production Manager Mark List traveled up the Caloosahatchee River to Lake Okeechobee and the surrounding areas to document the devastation caused by nutrient pollution. His resulting story ‘A Spoonful of Sugar’ in the Island Sand Paper inspired then-Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah to take up the fight to stop Big Sugar pollution. The local daily kicked off a ‘Stop the Muck” campaign. In 2008, Associate Editor Keri Weeg was in attendance when the SFWMD, with authorization by then-Governor Charlie Crist, agreed to purchase some 180,000 acres of U.S. Sugar land for the purpose of sending the water south. That deal fell apart as – year after year – Florida’s governor and legislature failed to act.

    In 2014, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved the passage of Amendment One, with many assuming those funds would be used to buy land south of the lake. Current Governor Scott and the legislature have yet to deliver on that either, though the Legacy Florida Act – which will provide $200 million for Everglades Restoration – passed on the last day of this year’s legislative session. Other projects such as C-43, the raising of the Tamiami Trail, purchasing of public and private lands for storage, local mayors rallying to demand solutions and a decision by the SFWMD in February to open Water Conservation Area 3 and send water into Florida Bay for the first time in nearly 100 years – amongst many others – have all been big steps in the right direction, yet the threat of brown water continues – as 2013’s ‘Summer of Brown Water’ was followed by this year’s El Nino rains wreaking havoc in the middle of season.

    Beginning in 2011, the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation began working with west coast stakeholders to provide a weekly Caloosahatchee Condition Report to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That report is posted each week on the SCCF website, under the Natural Resource Policies tab. This week’s report indicates that while the lake level is down, releases from the lake increased to meet farm irrigation demand.

    Right now, with the lake at 14.8 feet, discharges increased from 2,142 cubic feet per second (cfs) last week to 3,078 cfs this week “in order to supply irrigation requests from the agricultural industry”, with local scientists recommending that they be reduced to 2,000 cfs in anticipation of the coming rainy season. Their April 12th report also states:

    “High estuary discharges the past twelve weeks and increased evapotranspiration off the lake have contributed to significant lake recession. To protect spawning in the Caloosahatchee estuary and to improve salinity conditions throughout the estuary, we recommend reducing average discharges to 2,000 cfs for the coming week.”

    The group of scientists – who include the Town of Fort Myers Beach Environmental Technician Rae Blake and Rae Ann Wessel of the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation – also recommend that the Corps adjust their June 1st target lake level from 13.5 feet to 14.5 feet.

    And the beat goes on.


    Keri Hendry Weeg