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Who’s Naughty and Who’s Nice: A Year After the Everglades Big Sugar Deal

Much of the central and southern part of the state is at or below sea level. In an unaltered landscape, rainy season floodwaters would run down the a 240-mile stretch of the state – from Orlando to the Florida Keys — into the Atlantic Ocean, inundating farmland and cities at the cost of millions of...

Your celebration this season is, in part, brought to you by southern Florida, where almost 50 percent of the nation’s sugarcane crop comes from.

Last year Florida gave us 12,230,000 tons of cane and 1,433,000 tons of crystallized bliss (refined sugar). Hawaii, Louisiana, and Texas made contributions too, but not on the same scale.

It’s a bittersweet commodity. Our sugarcane sweet spot happens to sit smack-dab in the middle of the Florida Everglades, an impressive wetland ecosystem valued for its native species, commercial fishing habitat, water quality benefits, and flood mitigation potential.

The region has become one of the most engineered “natural” places in the world, with a rich history of man-versus-nature and agriculture-versus-environment battles.

Perhaps nothing describes the Everglades stage better than Waters of Destiny — a historic video produced in the 1950s about the Army Corps of Engineers’ efforts to put “water in the right place at the right time.”

“Everything was lovely in Florida, or so it seemed… but once you got past surf and the shore… there was trouble. Nature was frowning. The trouble was water.” This is “the story of such water and its mastery by the determined hand of man”:


Waters of Destiny. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Much of the central and southern part of the state is at or below sea level. In an unaltered landscape, rainy season floodwaters would run down the a 240-mile stretch of the state – from Orlando to the Florida Keys — into the Atlantic Ocean, inundating farmland and cities at the cost of millions of dollars.

The Central and Southern Florida Flood Control Project, possibly the world’s largest water control system, now regulates water through an elaborate network of thousands of canals, levees, and pumps that extend over 11.5 million acres.

A Spoonful of Sugar

During a recent journalism conference in Miami, I was able to visit the Everglades and hear from those who operate it and operate within it.

All of that infrastructure has resulted in a 50 percent loss of wetland habitat and natural floodplains, and has degraded water quality, according to the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), the agency created as the Army Corps’ local sponsor and now charged with balancing water quality, supply, flood control, and wetland health in the state.

One of the primary concerns is an elevated level of phosphorus, a nutrient that is applied to agricultural fields as a fertilizer and runs into adjacent wetlands causing a growth spurt of non-native species. Cattails eventually take over and change the entire ecosystem – down to the birds and snails.

And one of the primary agricultural crops in the region is sugar.

As you drive the rural roads south of Lake Okeechobee, a sea of sugarcane seems to flow seamlessly into a river of wetland grass.


U.S. Sugar Corp., one of two major sugar producers in the state, operates farmland (for sugarcane and citrus) and facilities on more than 180,000 acres in south Florida.

The company maintains that sugar is one of the most environmentally friendly crops, requiring few fertilizers or pesticides, and providing habitat for birds and other wildlife. And that they have been able to reduce their phosphorus loads by up to 50 percent for the last 14 years.

Show Me the Money

Apparently there is an ancient Chinese proverb that says “You can’t expect both ends of a sugar cane are as sweet.”

When it came time to buy land for restoration, sugarcane fields made the top of the naughty list.

(Read more in National Geographic News.)

As part of an ambitious state and federal plan to clean up the Everglades, SFWMD sealed a deal last October to purchase nearly 27,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar at a cost of $197 million.

When former Florida Governor Charlie Crist first announced the deal in 2008, he declared it was “as monumental as the creation of the nation’s first park, Yellowstone,” reported the New York Times.  Crist went on to say “I can envision no better gift to the Everglades.”

But unwrapping the restoration of Florida’s River of Grass remains a challenge for policy makers and conservationists.

The Governor’s original plan called for the purchase of 180,000 acres for $1.34 billion, but the Grinch that is economic recession eventually trimmed the package by nearly 85 percent. The State retained the rights to buy additional acreage when funding became available.

For the entire state-federal Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, 60 percent of the 232,505 acres of land needed for restoration and improvements have been acquired.

Beyond land acquisition, funding is also needed to convert those 27,000 acres into wetland. For now, 17,900 acres remain planted in citrus and 8,900 acres still produce sugarcane. According to local papers, U.S. Sugar leases the land back from SFWMD for about $150 an acre.

SFWMD, which is facing its own budget cuts, is now trying to figure out the best use for the land and how it could be incorporated into a broader restoration plan, said SFWMD spokesman Randy Smith.

So, for now, phosphorus is achieved at less than target levels by farmers using methods to sweep water off their land before it can accumulate too much of the nutrient (which they say is a natural component of the region’s soil) and by expansive constructed wetland areas funded by government agencies

These areas – 41,000 acres worth – capture run-off from agricultural land and filter it through treatment wetlands before it moves on to the Everglades. Phosphorus levels are reduced from more than 100 parts per billion (ppb) to less than 50 ppb, according to SFWMD. A healthy Everglades equalizes at 40 ppb (and rainwater generally holds 30 ppb), says Paul Gray of the Florida Audubon Society.

Part of the problem, says Gray, is that there is high phosphorus levels flowing into Lake Okeechobee from the north, before the water ever hits sugarcane fields.

When the big sugar deal was first proposed, rival sugar company Florida Crystals and the Miccosukee Tribe expressed concern that too much emphasis was being put on buying land from U.S. Sugar — that other elements of the restoration effort would be neglected.

But SFWMD’s Smith says this isn’t the case. “The State of Florida and the Water Management District continue to make considerable progress toward Everglades restoration.  Even during a difficult budget year for the state, the Florida Legislature appropriated $29 million to help keep Everglades progress on track.”

And last week, Congress and the president gave the Everglades a boost by approving $246 million in federal funding for the 2012 fiscal year, up from about $232 million in 2011. The entire restoration plan has a pricetag of $7.8 billion over the course of 20 years. The comprehensive plan was passed by Congress in 2000 and since then has received an annual average of $257 million in federal funding and $970 million in state funding.

Just something to think about as you ride your holiday sugar high into the New Year.




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Meet the Author

Tasha Eichenseher
Tasha Eichenseher is the Environment Producer and Editor for National Geographic Digital Media. She has covered water issues for a wide range of media outlets, including E/The Environment Magazine, Environmental Science & Technology online news, Greenwire, Green Guide, and National Geographic News.