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Guest Commentary: Fix the flow

By Ray Judah - | Jan 27, 2021

Approximately two years ago after Gov. DeSantis took office and replaced former Board members of the South Florida Water Management District that were closely aligned with the sugar industry, there was a great deal of hope and optimism that the new Board would provide the leadership to revive efforts to restore the Florida Everglades and coastal estuaries.

Unfortunately, Big Sugar continues to control the narrative, like a virulent pandemic, as evidenced by persistent harmful algae blooms, public health alerts and death of fish and wildlife along our beaches.

Big Sugar has always opposed restoring the flow of water from Lake Okeechobee south to the Everglades and Florida Bay in favor of taxpayer funded reservoirs and aquifer storage recovery wells (ASR).

The SFWMD has dutifully followed the lead of Big Sugar with building the C-43 reservoir and moving forward with the Everglades reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA). The C-43 reservoir will be completed without a filtration wetland or storm water treatment system to remove the toxic brew of insecticides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers including phosphorus and nitrogen released from the sugar cane fields around Lake Okeechobee. Further-more, the C-43 reservoir is designed to store approximately 170,000 acre feet of water or 55 billion gallons of water and the Everglades reservoir approximately 240,000 acre feet of water or 78 billion gallons.

Tragically, the combined total of 133 billion gallons of water stored in the C-43 and Everglades reservoirs is inadequate to handle the approximately 500 billion gallons of polluted water released from lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchees River during the heavy wet rainy summer months.

To compound the inept and inadequate approach to “getting the water right,” the Florida Legislature approved $50 million to be spent by the SFWMD on aquifer storage and recovery wells north of Lake Okeechobee to capture and store excess fresh water during the wet season. The SFWMD is investigating the construction of approximately 10 injection wells with the state-allocated funds. In addition to the excessive construction and maintenance costs, there is uncertainty with the potential contamination of untreated storm water into ground water aquifers, the release of arsenic due to water injected under pressure resulting in a public health risk and removing precious water from the Lake Okeechobee watershed.

Big Sugar legislative advocate Sen. Ray Rodrigues suggests “that the ASR wells can be built more quickly than nearly any other restoration projects in the pipeline.” Not surprisingly, Rodrigues is quick to support Big Sugar’s push for ASR without fully understanding the consequences of spending taxpayers’ monies on yet another misguided infrastructure project approach to restoring the south Florida ecosystem.

The most significant impact of ASRs on the Lake Okeechobee watershed is the removal of water critical to rehydrating the Everglades, prevent hypersaline conditions in Florida Bay, recharging the Biscayne aquifer to protect southeast Florida’s primary water supply and counter sea level rise in south Florida by greatly reducing the risk of saltwater intrusion of private and public well fields.

The current SFWMD Board should distinguish themselves from their predecessors and stand firm against Big Sugar’s meddling with state water management and policy objectives by requesting that the state Legislature remove the requirement to spend the $50 million exclusively on ASR wells and allow the funding to be used to “fix the flow” with more storage and treatment of water flowing south through the EAA from Lake Okeechobee.

Ray Judah is a former Lee County commissioner and the president of president of BullSugar.org