The Problem with Sugar, Location, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

Historic postcard ca. 1910 Sugar Cane. Postcard courtesy of Sandra Henderson Thurlow.
Historic postcard ca. 1910 “Growing Sugar Cane.” Postcard courtesy of Sandra Henderson Thurlow.

The problem with “Sugar” is its location.

The war cry of the Rivers Coalition is “Move the Water South!”

Right now, this is not possible as the majority of the lands south of Lake Okeechobee are “blocked,” “taken,” “owned,” by the sugar industry. The 700,000 acres of the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) consist of mostly sugar cane on prime agricultural muck lands, some of “the most productive in the world.” “Cha, Ching!”

These lands that formerly allowed sheet flow from waters north of the lake to overflow and to nourish the Everglades have been drained since the early 1900s on a small level and then extensively after World War II and the Cuban Revolution. It was earlier in 1923 that Lake Okeechobee was first connected to the St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon by the Army Corp of Engineers  (ACOE) through the construction of the C-44 canal allowing massive drainage from Lake Okeechobee into the St Lucie River/IRL keeping the lands south of lake “dry.”


According to David McCally in his book The Everglades, An Environmental History published in 1999:

What drainage accomplished in the Everglades was the conversion of a derelict system to a developmental one. A developmental system results when the natural world is converted into the basic infrastructure for intensive human development. Ironically, the modern American version of development is actually rooted in extensive destruction, but since that destruction does not lay waste human achievements, it is often ignored, and the close relationship between human development and the destruction of the natural world is overlooked.”

Proposed Everglades canal system/drainage, state of Florida, 1914.
Proposed Everglades canal system/drainage, state of Florida, 1914.

Perhaps in the past this “destruction” was overlooked, but not today. A new value system has arisen. The people want the natural systems of the Northern Estuaries and the Everglades “to return.”

In my opinion, part of returning this paradise is finding a way for a third outlet from Lake Okeechobee. There are many parts to the puzzle and this is one of the major pieces.

It will be interesting with the governor’s race warming up to see what the message is on “moving water south.” The University of Florida study sponsored by Senator Negron’s Senate Hearing on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin will not be finished until Spring of 2015. Therefore the candidates  will have to speak on their own.

Rick Scott and Charlie Christ have basically kept silent on sugar/water issues so far. At some point, both, who have close ties to the sugar industry, will have to speak on the difficult position of sugar blocking the Everglades’ waters and destroying the northern estuaries.

Let’s sum it up now, before I start to sweat and need a sweet tea.

“Location, location, location….” Some things never change, but some things do, and that is up to us.

First major canals south of Lake Okeechobee, Miami and New River 1911. Drawing shows  marsh lands, "swamp," of the Everglades.
First major canals south of Lake Okeechobee, Miami and New River 1911. Drawing shows marsh lands, “swamp,” of the Everglades.


16 thoughts on “The Problem with Sugar, Location, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

  1. That’s right Jacqui. That industry is the ELEPHANT in the room, and to date, not a single office holder in the state of Florida or on the national level, will address it with real conviction. Until the Flowway happens, we will live with repeated Lake discharges, and until the Flowway happens, none of the suite of projects north of the Lake will deliver the benefits they are designed to deliver.

    1. Plus, the sugary elephant causes horrific pollution when the District/Corps/government spews discharges to the ocean in order to maintain the damaging over-drainage of the Everglades Ag Area.

      How can Negron and the other recipients of Big Sugar’s money and favors continue to suport the sugar tragedy?

      We shouldn’t, by the way, continue to sweet talk sugar’s history as a positive part of our history. Truth is that the artificial drainage has triggered an EIGHT-FOLD increase in subsidized cane production while degrading the wetlands and funneling cash to a relatively small number of private (and public) profiteers.

  2. Hello Jacquie:

    I suspect that Big Sugar has a plan to happily sell all of its land (at a premium price) to the state in about 10 years, similar to the plan discussed in this article:
    (and the comments section below the article is illuminating, also)

    …because Big Sugar knows that much of the Everglades will be under water in about 35 years. Personally, I am spending my time urging our politicians to invest our tax dollars in renewable energy, even though we are past the tipping point for sea level rise and global warming. I hold on to a tenuous hope that we can still abate the destruction of the oceans.

    But just because the Glades will soon be underwater, please don’t give up on your amazing project to restore the Glades and the coasts. Send The Water South! Every change for the better, every step taken to put our politicians on the spot, brings us one step closer to a universal agreement that humans cannot continue to wreak havoc upon our natural habitat.

    Loved the quote from David McCalley: “…and the close relationship between human development and the destruction of the natural world is overlooked.” We have to convince our representatives that it cannot be overlooked any longer.

    I so enjoy your historical approach to this issue. I look forward to your blog posts every day – they are the highlight of my email inbox. The illustrations that you include are amazing; looking at your last illustration, I suddenly remembered what a pond apple tree looks like, and how tangy/bitter the fruit was.

    One day I’ll have to write about my family’s little boat and our trip from Tampa, down to Ft. Myers, up the Caloosahatchee, across Lake O, up the St. Lucie Canal/River and up the ICW to Merritt Island. It was in 1963, and my father decided this would be a fun way to break in his new Stamus. Picture two adults and 3 kids crammed inside the hot cuddy cabin of a 21-ft wooden boat every night for a week because, mosquitoes. But the days were amazing.

  3. Jacqui, thanks for the posts, writings, info and your out look. It is cool,

    We still got to hold elected officials accountable more than ever,

  4. If the water is destroying the estuaries a the cost, will sending it south not destroy what remains of the everglades? If we send it south through sugar country will that fix the problems we have been seeing related to local runoff?

    1. Good questions. 1.By federal law any water going into the Everglades has to reach a very low 10ppb phosphorus. So any water that goes south has to be cleaned. 2. No sending the water south from lake O. will not fix our local basin run off issues. The IRL plan which is part of CEPP the Central Ev. Pl. Project will do that and also will take many years to achieve but will be achieved. All has to worked on at the same time. Thank you T. Kendall for your e-mail questions and for reading my blog. Jacqui TL

  5. I have attended many public meetings on the Indian River Lagoon including the Select Senate Committee meeting, and I have never heard any suggestions about growing less sugar. In a country with one of the highest obesity rates on earth, do we really need all of this sugar?

    You mention that the muck lands used for sugar are among the “most productive in the world”. I suspect that large quantities of chemical fertilizers are being used to grow sugar. How else could the discharges into Florida’s waterways be so laden with nutrients?

    Why are the pollutants from Big Sugar allowed to be such a great problem for the citizens of Florida? Why are the sugar farmers not being required to greatly reduce the pollution at the source? Is it because Big Sugar has bought and paid for our elected officials?

    1. Dear Vince,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. You are right the discussion does not go to growing less sugar because they are guaranteed to be paid not for rice but for sugar. Nonetheless I do think the US is realizing finally that too much sugar is poison and we end up paying for for in our over strained health care system. Maybe one day sugar will be like tobacco –considered really bad. I personally have stopped eating sugar or anything with high frucose corn syrup. My personal boycott…
      the industry does use tons of fertilizer and chemicals but not as much as some other crops due to the MUCK SOIL that provides most of the nutrients. YES they have poisoned our waterways and destroyed the Everglades and our state and national government have been there every step of the way in a historic relationship that has no comparisons. Only as the public gets an attitude more like yours and forces change will we see change and believe it or not we have come a long way since the 1970s. Not fast enough to save our waters and the Everglades though…Still we fight to try.

      1. Hello am doing phd in industrial microbiology. My topic is based on sugar industry. Can u tell me some information about lagoons in sugar industry. Where all the sewage is discharged.

        1. Hi. Good for you. May be best to call me at 772 486 3818. There is no sewage discharged just phosphorus and nitrogen and other agriculture chemicals. It is actually cleaned now through storm water treatment areas a lot more than it ever was in the past after years of law suits from the federal government. I would be happy to talk to you. People around the SLR/IRL some anyway want a third outlet to lake o to allow more water to go south through the property many sugar fields are on. The sugar industry does still sometimes back pump their polluted water into the lake if water levels are very high….Please call me and thanks for your interest.

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