Big Sugar scored a sweet deal that’s left Florida’s waterways a toxic mess

When Mary Radabaugh first moved to Stuart 13 years ago, “it used to be like the Bahamas, crystal clear bathtub waters.”

But now, every couple of years, when the temperature is just right, a thick green mat of toxic algae settles on top of the water. It begins as a green slime, then slowly turns a deceivingly beautiful sky blue.

Within weeks, it rots into a white and brown speckled mass, with flies buzzing atop a reeking mound of mold and dead fish. The gelatinous gunk suffocates the fish below and releases toxins and into the air above.

“It starts burning your eyes, your throat, your nose,” she said from behind her desk at the Central Marina, just off of the St. Lucie Estuary and ground zero for toxic algae blooms. The marina has already lost 50 percent of its business during this year’s blooms, she says. No one wants to boat on these waters. Hear it from her below.

But while algae blooms devastate local estuaries, toxic airborne cyanobacteria keep residents up at night with headaches, and small businesses suffer… the 400,000 acres of sugar cane fields that line Lake Okeechobee are a lush, healthy green. As are the pockets of local, state, and federal politicians who have accepted more than $50 million in contributions from Florida’s sugar industry for decades. (Want a peek at the gravy train? We’ve got it.)

From the beginning

Radabaugh, like so many others in Stuart, used to spend all her time either in or surrounded by the water, which is usually a brilliant turquoise blue.

But now she can’t go near it — if it’s not because of the nauseating smell of the rotting algae and dead animals, it’s the unknown effects of the toxic chemicals in the water.

“I’ve had the watery eyes, I’ve had the headaches at night … all the common symptoms,” she said.

When the temperatures go back down a bit, the bloom simply settles on the river floor. At the Central Marina the bloom has gone from a thick mat on the water’s surface to virtually undetectable in just two weeks. But Radabaugh knows it will be back.

“If it’s in the right conditions it can rebloom … We’ve had almost three blooms in this particular section,” she said.

This blue-green algae feels like a foreign substance akin to something out of an M. Night Shyamalan movie, but it’s actually been around the earth since the beginning of time. It grows in ponds or lakes where the water is warm and full of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous, which act like a fertilizer, explained Paul Gray, Okeechobee Science Coordinator at the Florida Audubon.

How did this water get so full of nutrients? Historically, water flowed freely all the way from the Kissimmee River down to the southern tip of the state — it’s why renowned author and environmentalist Marjory Stoneman Douglas named the Everglades a flowing “river of grass.”

Here’s Gray mapping it out:

Over the years we’ve drained the Everglades to make cities (like Miami) and farmland where the water used to flow, effectively stopping it at Lake Okeechobee. When water flows south from the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee, it brings a bunch of runoff from cattle and farming up north, as well as some human waste that escapes the sewage system, and dumps it into the lake, carrying nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen.

The marshlands south of Lake O used to act as a natural water purifier. But now that the water is being diverted east and west to the coasts, it’s traveling without really being cleaned.

“A lot of people want to blame the farmers for everything, but if you flush your toilet in Palm Beach or even in Miami, some of that is up here,” Gray said. “It’s not just the farmers it’s all of us. Humans have a footprint and all of us need to be careful about how we deal with our waste and our nutrient streams.”

Right now most of that phosphorous-laden water is dumping out into the St. Lucie Estuary (aka the part where the river meets the ocean), where Radabaugh’s marina is.

Steven Davis, a wetland ecologist at the Everglades Foundation, suggests that the water flow from Lake Okeechobee into a massive reservoir (sort of like an above ground lake) until it can be cleaned by flowing through marshes, which would absorb the nutrients as the water flows through.

There’s one hitch: there are a bunch of sugar cane farms in the way. Check them out:

The role of Big Sugar

Directly below Lake Okeechobee, you’ve got the Everglades Agricultural Area — a 700,000-acre plot of fertile land that was drained and back pumped into Lake Okeechobee in 1948.

The major crop grown there today is sugar cane, and the farms are owned by three main companies, aka Big Sugar — The Fanjul Corp. (which owns Florida Crystals and Domino Sugar), U.S. Sugars, and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative.

Currently, sugar cane farming in Florida produces half of the total sugar in the United States. Florida’s sugar industry contributes to 18,600 jobs in Florida. For perspective, there are 8,324,500 jobs in Florida — so that’s just 0.2 percent of the employment.

The industry is valued at $677 million as of 2014, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services — an itty bitty amount of Florida’s GDP, which totaled $769.7 billion in 2014.

Until 1959 the sugar industry in Florida was quite small. But after the Cuban Fanjul family’s farms were nationalized in the Cuban revolution, they fled to South Florida and bought up hundreds of acres of agricultural land.

The following year’s 1960 trade embargo on Cuba, coupled with government subsidies on sugar, meant that Florida’s sugar farms had no competition and all the freedom to grow.

As far back as 1934, the sugar industry has received subsidies and benefited from tariffs that use tax money to mass purchase sugar while keeping the the price of U.S. sugar artificially high. Basically, when sugar farms produce too much sugar, the United States Department of Agriculture just buys it up using tax dollars — this number changes every year, but the Congressional Budget Office’s March 2016 baseline for Farm program predicted the USDA would spend $138 million on buybacks of U.S. sugar over the next decade.

Right now, the global sugar price is 19.15 cents per pound, while the U.S. sugar price is 27.39 cents per pound. This means that taxpayers are subsidizing U.S. sugar production while still paying more at the supermarket for the sweet stuff.

Since the 1990s, Big Sugar has been able to fend off state water clean-up requirements and routinely leave us, the taxpayers, to pick up the bill for Everglades restoration efforts. In 1996, the sugar industry spent $35.7 million on campaigns to beat back an attempt from environmentalists to impose a sugar tax to raise $900 million to clean up the Everglades. Big sugar won the campaign, and Floridians voted against it by a 9 percent margin.

But in 2014, 75 percent of Floridians voted for Amendment 1, the Water and Land Conservation Amendment, which allocated $700 million for Everglades restoration. Then Big Sugar released the lobbyists and watered it way down.

“The legislators robbed us of that … it was unfortunate politics,” according to Gray of Florida Audubon. “We got ripped off, we’ve got these problems and we need money to spend it and they ran off and did something else with it so we’re trying to get that money to fix these problems.”

Just last year, a plan to buy 46,800 acres of U.S. Sugar land fell through, with the South Florida Water Management District saying it wasn’t worth it. Meanwhile the coasts continue to be pumped with polluted nutrient-rich water.

Florida Crystals says the algae blooms happening in Stuart are not caused by their farms, and technically this is true. The nutrients in the St. Lucie Estuary can come from a number of different sources, like old septic tanks, according to Randy Smith, spokesperson for the South Florida Water Management District.

But a history of backpumping (which is now illegal) into Lake Okeechobee to drain the land for the farms primed the area for blooms, according to Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon Florida. And the inability for clean water to flow southward makes that problem worse.

The way forward

The way to fix it is to use the money from Amendment 1 to rebuild the state’s water management system and dig out a way to get the water flowing south from Lake Okeechobee, according to Gray, who breaks it down here:

What does that look like? You’ve got to cut through many of these farms with canals and buy enough land in the agricultural area for a 60,000-acre, 6-foot-high reservoir. That reservoir would be emptied into the Everglades during the dry season and filled and used as storage during the rainy season (kind of like what Lake Okeechobee does now).

You’ve also got to build artificial marshes and stormwater treatment areas to make sure the nutrient-rich runoff isn’t flowing directly into the Everglades, or we’ll see the same algae blooms that are happening in Stuart devastating the waterways below, according to Davis.

“We’ve got the plan, we’ve got the money. The only thing we’re not seeing is the will to make that happen,” Davis said.

And that lack of political will has probably got a little something to do with exorbitant campaign contributions from Big Sugar. From 1994 to 2016 the sugar industry contributed $57.8 million to local and state campaigns, according to the Miami Herald, spanning both Democrats and Republicans.

The sugar industry has given Gov. Rick Scott $28,250, Sen. Bill Nelson $46,900, and Sen. Marco Rubio $92,335, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics — and they’ve already donated $37,954 to Hillary Clinton’s campaign this year alone, showing their quest for influence doesn’t stop at Florida. Follow the money at our story here. (We’ve got the full rundown of Big Sugar’s campaign donations over here.)

“The sugar industry really owns the field. It doesn’t make any difference whether they’re Republican or Democrat, they have their have hands in both [parties],” said Lee.

But this being an election year, some Martin County residents like Kenan Siegel are hoping to tip the scales. Five years ago, Siegel moved from Miami to Martin County with his family and thought he hit the lottery because it was so beautiful. But after just two years, discharges transformed his strip of paradise into a polluted mess.

He and two others started an organization called Bull Sugar, with the goal of stopping water from Lake Okeechobee from reaching Stuart, instead fixing the flow of freshwater into the Florida Bay.

“This has been something that has been happening for years. …. but this is an election year, it’s fortuitous. A lot of people are paying attention [because] we had this toxic blue-green algae which was horrible but it got us national media attention,” Siegel said. “In Florida government has the most power … we have to elect the people that are going to do the right thing.”