Escape from Winter and the sugar farm controversy

South Florida is a pretty reasonable place to spend time in the middle of winter. As the snow storms lined themselves up to pummel our home, Kerry and I escaped on an overpriced flight from Kansas City to Fort Lauderdale. We spent most of the week with our respective families. I went canoeing at Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, biking at Lake Okeechobee, and did some hiking at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park.

With a population of over 6 million, it’s pretty impressive that South Florida manages to maintain natural areas at all. But the battle is never-ending. Sugar cane farmers continue to encroach into the natural world and pollute into our wetlands. Read “Sugar-cane growing on state land misses pollution-cleanup goal, records show” in the Sun Sentinel for one story on this. I did some investigating into the effects of the sugar industry on the environment and found a heated controversy of misinformation. I was disappointed to find some of this misinformation to be coming from environmentalists.

Earlier this month, The Weather Channel released “Toxic Lake: The Untold Story of Lake Okeechobee”, a 10 minute documentary discussing algae blooms on the Florida coasts, putting the blame entirely on the high levels of phosphorous fertilizers that sugar farmers are releasing into Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest lake. These algae blooms are occurring in the St Lucie and Caloosahatchee coastal estuaries at the outlets of the canals that discharge water from the lake. They have caused fish die-offs, dangerous conditions for swimmers, hurt the local tourism industry, and led Governor Rick Scott to declare a State of Emergency. The video, however, received harsh criticism for failing to mention the evidence that the algae blooms are actually driven by runoff from septic tanks and golf courses and the dilution of salt in the sea, rather than back-pumping water from sugar farms into the lake.

Biased media, false information, and bad science are very real problems and they are counterproductive to solving environmental challenges, regardless of what side they are coming from. According to a review by the University of Florida Water Institute as well as statements by Florida Atlantic University professor Brian LaPointe and the South Florida Water Management District, there are multiple sources besides the polluted back-pumping from sugar farmers contributing to the algae blooms and the majority of volume entering the ocean is not coming from the lake. These statements were made in June. As far as I know, no scientists have weighed in on the issue since Toxic Lake was released.So perhaps the jury is still out.

That isn’t to say we should loosen environmental regulations of the sugar farmers. Sugar farms still contribute some of the pollution likely causing algae blooms and they have other environmental problems associated with them. As with any large scale farming industry, regulations are what keep them in check and prevent their impact from getting out of control. But science only works when we believe the evidence. If we want to move forward and solve the algae bloom problem, as well as avoid it in other places, we need to understand what the real cause is. Science is the most powerful tool environmentalists have. Misusing it makes it harder to solve problems, wastes resources, and opens environmentalism up to easy criticism by opponents. I had to dig pretty deep to hear all sides of this story. Hopefully whatever actions are taken are driven by actual science and not politics.

In other news, we recently changed the name and look of the blog. I’m hoping to ramp up our blogging activities with more tips for getting outside and news about conservation-related issues. You can also follow us on Twitter @TheOutdoorVoice

Finally, another perk of South Florida (besides the weather) that you may have not considered is the availability of cheap international flights that I’ve taken advantage of in the past. Tomorrow, Kerry and I embark on a backpacking adventure across Patagonia. Stay tuned for updates on what we find there.


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