South Florida’s sugar industry and water managers touted another year of cutting farm pollution Thursday, even while water remains far too dirty to help the parched Everglades.
At its regular West Palm Beach meeting, the South Florida Water Management District board gave a standing ovation to farmers who they said helped cut pollution from farms and ranches encompassing 640,000 acres around Lake Okeechobee. Over the last 20 years, phosphorus draining from fields has been cut by 4,900 metric tons or “136 humpback whales,” district bureau chief Pamela Wade said.
Farmers in the area, dominated by sugar growers, were ordered to clean up operations under Florida’s 1994 Everglades Forever Act. Phosphorus, which comes from fertilizers, animal waste and decaying plants, can feed the spread of algae and cattails and upset the balance of Everglades marshes that need very low levels to survive.
“For two decades these farmers not only met but consistently exceeded requirements,” said board member Melanie Peterson, a Palm Beach County Realtor.
Under the act, farmers were ordered to cut phosphorus by at least 25 percent of levels before the 1994 law passed. For the second time in 20 years, last year’s reductions reached 79 percent.
But even while phosphorus is down, levels in water needed in the southern Everglades, where a severe drought has left marshes parched and driven up salinity in Florida Bay, remain too high. Environmentalists say that rather than address actual levels of phosphorus, the sugar industry has played a shell game with numbers.
“That’s a huge improvement from where they were, but that’s not in compliance,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest, who successfully sued the state to clean up water supplies. “That’s a little like saying we were driving at 140 mph and now we’re driving at 100. That’s great, but more is possible and more is necessary. They aren’t taking responsibility.”