‘Haters’ blame farmers for algae blooms

OKEECHOBEE — Political campaigns and social media continue to keep the summer algae blooms in the news and continue to confuse the public, according to comments at the Sept. 6, Water Resources Analysis Coalition meeting, held at the South Florida Water Management District Headquarters in West Palm Beach

“The forums are wild. It’s crazy out there,” said Newton Cook. “I’m not talking about dozens of people, I’m talking about thousands.

“People are interested. Right now people are hurting. It is hysterical,” he said.

Barbara Miedema of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative said she is thankful for the information and sound science presented by Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, Department of Environmental Protection, the South Florida Water Management District and other agencies on their website. Unfortunately, most members of the public don’t see this information.

“Some of the fringe groups have taken very hateful actions,” she said. “It has also made its way into political campaigns as rhetoric. We’ve actually had threats at our company where anonymous people have called and told us not to come to work or bad things were going to happen.

“The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office has enhanced patrols and enhanced security at our location,” she continued.

“It’s unfortunate that the dialog behind screens among activist grounds that aren’t relying on sound science are stooping to that kind of a low,” she said. “It’s really a breakdown of society and how we communicate.”

“Often times the reaction is emotional,” said Beth Lewis of the Nature Conservancy. “We need to figure out ways to educate folks with different levels of knowledge. Fundamentally it’s about that information being based on sound science.”

Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the algae and red tide problems in Florida have attracted attention from all over the country.

“I have about 8,000 emails in my inbox,” she said.

Mary Ann Martin of Roland Martin Marina in Clewiston said she tries to give members of the media the facts about the lake, but they seem to only be interested in sensationalism.

“What a month we had,” she said. “There are a lot of haters out there. We got to experience some of them. The news people were thick as thieves all over the place constantly calling us, the Weather Channel, the newspapers, the people on television. It was really funny because we gave them some good information on the problem and why we have the algae on the lake and they have a way of distorting the news.”

She said due to media reports, “we had a lot of people call in August canceling a lot of fishing trips” because they had been told the water was green and soupy and fish were dying.

“The Weather Channel came out and did a piece on us. They are looking for sensationalism, and it’s how they feed the public,” she said.

The truth the media is not showing is that the lake is beautiful and the fishing has been excellent all summer.

“I have not seen a fish kill yet,” Ms, Martin said. “Those fish are healthy. They’re biting. We have people going out. The lake is alive and well.

“The haters can go back into their corners and stay there,” she said. “The lake is still beautiful.

“I think everything is going to work out all right,” Mrs. Martin continued. “Thank God for the scientists.”

James Erskine of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission said despite what has been on the news, the fishing has been very good on Lake Okeechobee all summer. He said there were 40 fishing tournaments on Lake Okeechobee between June 21 through mid-August.

“Two of those tournaments had over 30 pounds to win,” he said. “That’s a number that will turn heads during the spawning season.”

In 13 of the tournaments, the winners caught over 20 pounds of fish.

“Even though it’s pretty hot this summer, fishing was hot on the lake as well,” said Mr. Erskine.

“People are angry, discouraged,” said Malcom Wade of U.S. Sugar.

“There are a lot of groups out there who are just fueling the fire with lies.”

He said the hate groups blame the EAA farmers for the high nutrient load in the lake. But the backpumping from the farms ended in 1994. Even when backpumping was allowed, historically it was only 10 to 12 percent of the water entering the lake.

In Water Year 2018 (May 1, 2017-April 30, 2018) only 2 percent of the water came from the EAA, he added.

“They claim we’re blocking the water south,” Mr. Wade continued.

On average, the runoff from EAA farms is about 16 to 18 percent of the flow into the Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) south of the EAA. About 70 percent of the water in the WCAs comes from rainfall, he explained. Only a limited amount of water can go under the Tamiami Trail (currently the flow is about 2,000 cubic feet per second) so once the WCAs fill up, no more water can be sent south.

“We’re not blocking the water. The rainfall blocks the water,” he said.

Despite what the hate groups claim on the social media pages, “the environmental restoration that has happened in the EAA ought to be heralded as a giant success story,” he said.

The water entering Everglades National Park has been cleaned to the strict water standard of 10 parts per billion of phosphorus.

“What other basin can claim the same kind of achievement as the EAA?” he asked.

“When you hear these things that Big Sugar and the farmers in the EAA are causing everything from global warming to Sahara dust, all those environmental groups are trying to do is attack sugar, put sugar in a bad light for whatever reason.

“It’s not helping the situation. People are not focusing on the answer.

“Know what they are focusing on? Send the water south,” he said.

“Every time I see someone tell me (on social media) that the water going out of the C-43 and C-44 (canals) is full of phosphorus and nitrogen from the south of the lake, I go right in and say 450 metric tons coming in from the north; 97 percent of the water coming in from the north,” said Newton Cook of United Waterfowlers of Florida.

“You never see a TV reporter, you never see anyone addressing the actual sources of the phosphorus and nitrogen going into lake Okeechobee,” he said. “Why?

“Folks we have a problem,” he said.

“It might be that we’re going to have to do some drastic things north of the lake like have imposed been south of the lake, like if you don’t drop your phosphorus levels 25 percent something bad is going to happen to you as a rancher and a farmer and a city and Disney.

“If we do not address the actual sources of the water and nutrients coming into Lake Okeechobee, and if we keep spending all of our time mucking around south, where absolutely not a drop of water is going out the C-43 and C-44 causing red tides, blue-green tides, brown tides … as long as the district, the corps, the newspapers, the TV stations, as long as they are spending 99 percent of their time dealing with 3 percent of the problem, we will never, ever have a clean lake.

“Until the day comes we look north, until the day comes that the FDEP and EPA says ‘you know folks up there, you’re going to clean up your act,’ until they do that, we’re just whistling Dixie.”

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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