Polluters vs. The People
As we were going to press, both The Miami Herald and Sun-Sentinel ran pieces on the state’s acquisition of U.S. Sugar's land to help restore the natural flow of water to the Everglades. So did the New York Times. The Herald and Times’ pieces were particularly long. All three stories emphasized cost, wondering if the price was right in the first place, and if in hard times the state could afford to purchase this land. There were the usual quotes from lawyers from interests trying to block the plan, as well as environmentalists and spokesmen for the Crist administration. The latter are determined to see this deal through as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to correct a mistake that never should have been in the first place.
We know something about this subject from some research last year for Gulfstream Media Group’s magazines on the Treasure Coast, Stuart Magazine and Jupiter Magazine. We quoted some people who have been involved in environmental efforts for many years. Among them is Karl Wickstrom, editor of Florida Sportsman, the best man in our business I have met over 40 years. Wickstrom came out of The Miami Herald, during the day when all growth was good and the environmental be damned. In 1969, he launched Florida Sportsman and turned it into one of the best magazines of its kind. The outdoors are his beat, and for as long as his magazine has existed, it has crusaded to correct policies that damage the environment.
One of the greatest mistakes goes back 60 years. Then, as now, agricultural interests all but owned many Florida politicians. Thus they were able to largely shut off what we now know is a great river, flowing from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay. Imagine blocking off a major river, and channeling the huge amount of water into a massive lake and canals. That’s what they did to the River of Grass.
The result is to store up huge amounts of water in Lake Okeechobee until the lake gets so high that it threatens to break through its dike. Fearing a breach in the dike and a disastrous flood – such as the one that killed thousands of people in the 1920s – water managers let the water run off. And not south to the Glades as nature intended, but into rivers east and west, to the estuaries along the coasts, Fort Myers to the west, Stuart to the east. Nice idea, except that the water from the lake is polluted. Polluted by nutrients poured into it by run-off from heavily fertilized farms, much of it sugar cane. The effect of that polluted water is devastating, killing all forms of wildlife, including fish and birds.
This does not happen every year. Sometimes the lake is very low, and we worry about water shortages. But it happens often enough that every time the environmentalists manage to get wildlife back close to a natural state, the discharges kill off their work. People in Stuart and Fort Myers know this well. They see the diseased and dead fish, and the remains of the birds which feed on them. For areas whose economy is closely tied to a healthy estuary system, it is a recurring disaster.
I would take Karl Wickstrom’s opinion over that of the lawyers and polluters.
“This is it,” Wickstrom says. “We either do this or we lose out. If we miss this it’s like we drive and see different properties that we could have bought for a song. And it’ll come back in spades to get us. There is no other way to restore the sheet flow. It’s not perfect, but only alternative we have.
“This is a giant opportunity. People are for it. Polls show that. They have a bad feeling about the government subsidizing Big Sugar and they are making hundreds of millions and they turn around and cause pollution. Huge areas south of Lake Okeechobee, as large as the lake itself, have been drained to keep the polluters making money. Mother nature wanted that to be wet. Draining it out to the estuaries reduces ground water. When you do have dry years you have no sponge effect.
“The people fighting this all have conflicts of interest; they are lawyers for polluters or polluters themselves. I call it the pollution establishment because that’s what is. People want to make a lot of money with the status quo, and not worry about the horrible ruination it causes. It’s such a shame. We remember rivers and estuaries that were pure and filled with fish and birds. Now we suffer with toilets. This is the public good versus private profit makers. True, sugar is getting a good price. I say so what? It is not worth jeopardizing this opportunity.”
That’s what you don’t read in newspapers. The truth.