FACT CHECK: Captains for Clean Water blame sugar farmers for Everglades flooding


A video released by Captains for Clean Water on social media this week blames sugar farmers for flooding in the Everglades.

The video features images of Betty Osceola of the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida, taken from her own Facebook page. Osceola was apparently not impressed. “So @Captains For Cleanwater acting like the a Miccosukees don’t know anything?” she posted Oct. 19. “They have to do some explaining for us to educate us on an issue we know very well since, we live here. Plus we have our own degreed PHD’d and MS’d scientists on staff who understand hydrology and ecology very well. I think we can talk for ourselves.”

In her own Facebook video, Osceola states: “The Everglades are drowning. Open the gates. We need help now! We need relief today. Wherever you are in Florida, or even around the world, contact the Army Corps of Engineers. Urge them to open the gates. Contact South Florida Water Management (SFWMD). Contact any legislators that you know of who can help us out there. The animals, the plants, they need your help now!”

In their video, the Captains for Clean Water spokesperson states: “You may have seen recently that parts of the Everglades are flooded. (Shows images from Betty Osceola’s Facebook page.) Let’s discuss why and how this is happening.

“I first want to note that there are solutions to this problem currently underway, projects like raising the Tamiami Trail that will allow much more water to go where it’s intended to go instead of being locked up in these WCAs known as water conservation areas. So why is water being held so high in these water conservation areas or WCAs?

“For one, there’s been a lot of rain lately, but most of these water conservation areas or WCAs receive a lot of their water from the stormwater treatment areas, which are located just south of the Everglades Agricultural Area, exactly where Big Sugar farms.”

FACT CHECK: The EAA STAs are not "south of the EAA." The EAA STAs are located within the EAA. The boundaries of the EAA have been designated by state statute. About 25% of the EAA is in public ownership.

Solutions aren't just underway -- there are already water control structures in place that could  relieve flooding in the WCAs. That's the purpose of Osceola's plea to: "Open the gates!"

More importantly, according to SFWMD, 70% of the water in the WCAs is from direct rainfall.

Captains for Clean Water continues: “Then you ask, where is the water in the STAs coming from? In a perfect world it would be coming from Lake Okeechobee, but as you can see in this graph (graph shared from Oct. 12 SFWMD meeting), 96% of the water entering these treatment areas is coming from the Everglades Agricultural Area.”

FACT CHECK: As explained in SFWMD meetings, the STAs were not built or designed to treat water from Lake Okeechobee. They were built to treat water from the EAA, to clean the wet season farm runoff before it flows south. (During the dry season, there is usually no runoff from the farms. In fact, during the dry season, they use Lake Okeechobee water to irrigate the farms.) The development of the EAA STAs was the result of a Federal Consent Decree which set the standard for the phosphorus levels in water released into Everglades National Park. Phosphorus levels above 10 parts per billion (ppb) were determined to disrupt the plant balance in the Everglades allowing cattails to push out other vegetation.

The graph correctly shows 96% of the runoff flowing into the STAs  this year has been from the EAA basin. However, that doesn’t mean 96% of the water in the STAs is from farm runoff. The graph shown in the video does not include direct rainfall into the STAs. Runoff from the EAA basin mixes with rain that falls directly into the STAs.

According to SFWMD data, rainfall into the STAs May 15 to Oct. 10:

  • STA 1E: 23,500 acre feet;
  • STA 1W: 40,500 acre feet;
  • STA 2: 52,200 acre feet;
  • STA ¾; 46,300 acre feet;
  • STA 5/6: 59,800 acre feet.

That’s a total of 222,300 acre feet of direct rainfall into the STAs.

Do the math: Accounting for the rain that falls directly into the STAs, the rain that falls into the WCAs, flow from the west into the WCAs and flow from the east into the WCAs – all numbers shared at the Oct. 12 SFWMD meeting -- runoff from the EAA farms accounts for about 16% of the water in the WCAs.

Captains for Clean Water continues: “To simplify, the water flowing from the STAs, which then fills and floods the WCAs is almost entirely Big Sugar’s runoff water.”

FACT CHECK: Only about 16% of the water entering the WCAs this wet season originated with runoff from the EAA. Also, the EAA is not all sugar farms. They also grow corn, lettuce, celery and other vegetables. Direct rainfall into the WCAs was around 2.8 million acre feet – about 70% of the water entering the WCAs.

Captains for Clean Water alleges: In fact, since May 1, the EAA has added about a foot of water to WCA-3A which is where this flooding is occurring.

FACT CHECK:  Consider: Some of the water coming from the STAs is direct rainfall, not EAA runoff. Plus the numbers shared at the SFWMD meeting totaled all of the WCAs, not just WCA-3A. 

According to the data shared at the SFWMD meeting, from May 1 to Oct. 2, Flow from the EAA STAs to WCAs, 848,500 acre feet of water. The WCAs cover approximately 864,000 acres. 

  • WCA-1, the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in Palm Beach County is 218 square miles.
  • WCA-2, the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Area in Palm Beach and Broward Counties covers 207 square miles.
  • WCA-3, the Everglades and Francis S. Taylor Wildlife Management Areas, in Broward and Miami-Dade counties covers 925 square miles.

Captains for Clean Water alleges: “The water in WCA-3A is about a foot above schedule, so without all this runoff water from the EAA, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”

FACT CHECK: All of the water from the STAs did not flow into WCA-3A. Other WCAs received some of that flow. More importantly, the clean water from the STAs entering the WCAs has been a gradual flow over more than five months. During the more than five months that water was flowing in, some water was also flowing out under the Tamiami Trail and even more water was leaving the WCAs through evapotranspiration (a combination of evaporation and plant transpiration.) Water managers try to keep the WCAs in schedule (water levels not too high, not too low), but they don’t have a crystal ball to predict late season heavy rainfall. Five months ago, they did not predict heavy rainfall in October. The first week of October, some areas of South Florida measured more than 3 inches of rainfall in two hours.

Captains for Clean Water: “So while the entire system south of the Everglades Agricultural Area has been heavily inundated with this water, guess who isn’t being flooded at all? That’s right. The sugar industry. They’re sitting high and dry right now, as they always are, because they’re able to just flush this water through the stormwater treatment areas whenever they want, and that’s been the status quo for years.”

FACT CHECK: If the EAA farms were “high and dry,” they would be out of business. The “black gold” of the EAA is muck soil. If it dries out, it oxidizes and is lost. Rainfall data shows most of the rain that falls on the EAA farms stays on the farms.

Based on annual rainfall average, more than 60% of the rain that falls on the farms never leaves the basin. Some rainfall never even hits the ground because it is absorbed by the leaves. Most rain that falls in the EAA is absorbed by the plants or percolates into the earth, recharging the aquifer.

Under the Best Management Practices developed by the Florida Department of Agriculture, farmers are not allowed to pump water until a field has received at least 1 inch of rain per rain event, even if the field is already wet from a previous storm. Also, sugar cane and rice crops are very tolerant of water. Other crops in the EAA are more sensitive to flooding.  EAA farms do sometimes suffer crop losses from flooding and delays in planting when fields are flooded. Vegetable crops are more sensitive to flooding than sugar cane – which is a grass -- or rice, which is grown in flooded fields.

Captains for Clean Water continues: “We wonder why we have this high lake all the time. Well, the stormwater treatment areas that we, the taxpayers pay for, are always used first and filled up by the Everglades Agricultural Area, leaving no room for lake water that can be cleaned and sent south.

FACT CHECK: Lake Okeechobee has been high since Hurricane Ian dumped more than 1 million acre feet of water in the Orlando/Kissimmee area a year ago. In order to save more than 10,000 homes from flooding, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District installed massive pumps to move that water through the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes into Lake Okeechobee. During the 2022-2023 dry season, under political pressure from the coastal communities, USACE kept much of that water in Lake Okeechobee. While the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS-08) called for releases east to the St. Lucie River and west to the Caloosahatchee River, USACE used “operational flexibility” to “bank” about 2 feet of water that could have released under LORS-08 guidelines. For most of the dry season, no lake water was released to the St. Lucie and flow to the Caloosahatchee was kept to the beneficial flow of 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), measured at the Franklin Lock, which is more than 43 miles from Moore Haven, where Lake O meets the river. If local basin runoff meets or exceeds that 2,000 cfs target, no lake water is released.

The lake started the wet season around 13.7 feet above sea level. The ecological target for the start of the wet season is 12 to 12.5 feet.

The lake has continued to be high throughout the wet season as heavy rainfall continued to fill the Big O both through direct rainfall and inflow from the north.  Throughout the wet season, USACE continued to limit releases to the Caloosahatchee at 2,000 cfs and  to the St. Lucie at 0 cfs. With the area south of the lake so wet from direct rainfall, that meant for much of the summer the bulk of the water leaving the lake has been evapotranspiration.

The EAA STAs were built to clean the EAA runoff. They were not designed to clean lake water, which is higher in phosphorus than the EAA runoff. EAA farmers pay about $11 million in special agricultural use tax each year. While the $11 million only funds about half the annual cost of maintaining the STAs, farmers are also among the taxpayers who pay property taxes to SFWMD, and like other taxpayers they are provided with some flood control.

Urban areas are prioritized for flood control -- as evidenced by the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, in which both USACE and SFWMD prioritized the welfare of Orlando/Kissimmee homeowners over the ecological health of Lake Okeechobee.

Open the gates ...

According to information shared at the Oct. 12 SFWMD meeting, water control structures already in place could relieve the flooding in WCA-3A. Much of the year, the gates are kept closed to protect the nesting area of a subpopulation of the endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow. According to information shared at the meeting, recent bird surveys found no sparrows in the this area – known as subpopulation A. Meanwhile, north of the Tamiami Trail, deer and other wildlife are suffering due to the flooding.

In an Oct. 20 media briefing, Major Cory Bell, deputy commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Jacksonville District, said USACE is working with SFWMD to  do exactly what Betty Osceola is calling for -- allow a temporary deviation to open the existing water control structures and keep them open  long enough to relieve the flooding.

Everglades, Osceola, flooding, Captains for Clean Water