A few weeks ago we wrote about the mounting concern over pollution from Lake Okeechobee destroying the estuaries on both sides of the state. More recently, in connection with a piece being prepared for our water issue (aka the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show special) we visited Stuart, the east coast town most affected by the Army Corps of Engineers’ periodic discharges when the lake gets too high for safety.
The people we talked to were all in the boating business, but we got the impression the anger – and it really is anger - over this situation extends to most people in the community. It is one thing when tourism is hurt when charter groups coming to town for what was once great fishing cancel their plans, or boat captains are forced to go out eight miles into the ocean to have good fishing. Or when those who harvest oysters find the beds destroyed, and fish are killed for miles around. But it is something else when people are warned not to go into Stuart’s many waterways because of health concerns.
As Florida Sportsman editor Karl Wickstrom previously pointed out in this blog, the official excuse for this terrible situation is concern that the levee around the lake could break, repeating a disaster that occurred in 1928. But Wickstrom, whose magazine is based in Stuart, calls that a phony position. The main reason is to protect Big Sugar, the combination of sugar and citrus growers, whose political clout is used to protect their lands south of the lake.
Before Florida embarked on the program of draining wetlands for agriculture, water from the lake flowed south into the Everglades through marshes that naturally cleaned the water. But most of that land is now farming, and rather than interfere with that industry, the Corps releases the water into rivers and estuaries east and west, destroying businesses that need clean water.
You would think that tens of thousands of people on both coasts whose quality of life is hurt could outvote a relative handful of business interests - especially since communities such as Stuart have plenty of well-heeled residents, both seasonal and full time. But it doesn’t work that way. Big Sugar contributes millions to elected officials, both local and federal, especially those in key positions, where they can influence legislation and make appointments to boards that oversee environmental issues. It also spends huge amounts on lobbyists. Almost anyone in Stuart and nearby communities will tell you that historically those legislators protect Big Sugar at the expense of their own neighbors.
What is this if not corruption? This is not the same as donating a hundred bucks to a neighbor running for city commissioner. But it is much like the gun lobby’s enormous funding against anyone advocating gun sanity. Campaign contributions in such massive amounts amount to legal bribes. And when that money is so destructive to the environment of a state whose economy is based so heavily on environment, you would think law enforcement would consider it a crime. It is a crime that they don’t.