Rep. Katie Edwards on Lake Okeechobee: Let's Be Careful Who We Blame

By: Nancy Smith | Posted: September 3, 2013 3:55 AM
Katie Edwards

State Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation

The sick, toxic waters in and out of Lake Okeechobee, the hysteria whipped up in local media, the need to find a big, bad villain-polluter -- all deja vu to freshman state Rep. Katie Edwards.

The Plantation Democrat spent a lot of her childhood on her grandparents' ranch in Okeechobee. She remembers well excessive rainy seasons in the 1980s when Okeechobee discharges turned the water brown and lifeless.

Only, back then, the prevailing bad-guy wasn't sugar farming, it was dairy farming.

"This is why my view of what's going on now with the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and the Indian River Lagoon -- the entire conversation about pollution in the northern Everglades -- is very personal," Edwards, 32, told Sunshine State News. "I remember so clearly. We were told all the bad stuff came from cattle. Dairy farmers were the scapegoat. They were hassled relentlessly. Get rid of the cows, the lake stays clean."

Dairymen felt the heat, Edwards said. Ultimately, the crushing cost of the cleanup got to them. In 1983 there were 45 dairy farms in the Okeechobee Basin; today there are 17. 

"And, guess what?" she said. "The ones who stayed, clean up everything that flows into Mosquito Creek or the Kissimmee River -- and I mean to a very high standard -- and there's still a world of problems in heavy discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

"What happens when we drive out sugar farmers and they're all gone but we still have polluted water flowing into our lake and estuaries? Who do we blame then?"

Edwards, who represents Florida House District 98 in Broward County, didn't have to attend Sen. Joe Negron's Aug. 22 meeting of the Senate Select Committee on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin. No one required her to drive up to Stuart. But she was there for the duration, sitting in the front row. She is the former executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau who now serves on the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.

Edwards is looking for an honest, nonpartisan conversation among Florida leaders on policy for solving the problem -- all of it, not just the discharges.

She claims there is an ample body of evidence relating the pollutants in Lake Okeechobee to explosive development, not only on the waterways linking the lake east and west, but particularly north of the lake -- as far north as Kissimmee. It's the every-time-somebody-in-Orange-County-flushes-a-toilet syndrome. It's runoff laden with man-made chemicals used on golf courses, lawns and across thousands of miles of roadway. It's seeping septic tanks and leaking sewer pipes. It's continuing to allow construction in flood-prone areas. 

Edwards said Big Sugar is the convenient scapegoat, even though South Florida Water Management District data show conclusively that farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area reduced phosphorous in the water flowing from their properties last year by more than 70 percent. "I would like to see the same standards applied to the rest of the South Florida community to protect our waters," Edwards said. "It's incumbent upon us as lawmakers to stop the gamesmanship and apply ourselves to our long-term responsibility. It's going to come at quite a pricetag, but I feel Senator Negron and his committee are moving in this direction and that's refreshing to see."

Sugar farming in Florida employs 7,000 people directly, 25,000 indirectly. It is a vital economic engine, she said.

After the Senate committee meeting in Stuart, Edwards voiced concerns about the integrity of the dike around the lake.

“The current derelict condition of Herbert Hoover Dike in South Florida is a national environmental crisis," she said in a written statement. "For the protection of South Florida’s residents and environment, I believe more federal funding is needed now to improve the dike’s structural integrity. The dike’s importance to our region is as important now as it was when it was constructed following the destructive hurricanes of 1928 and 1932. As a Florida native whose family has farmed in the northern Everglades for more than four decades, I understand this issue very well and hope to see positive and prompt action from state and national leaders.”

Edwards believes Everglades restoration and dike re-girding should be priorities. "The governor wants jobs. There are shovel-ready jobs right there, right now, just begging to happen." 

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423.    

Comments (16)

Dr Sci Guy
1:08PM SEP 16TH 2013
I am not so sure what your message is Rep. Katie Edwards. Are you saying the sugar industry is not responsible or that even though they are responsible they should be allowed to continue being negligent because they provide jobs?
This is the same idiocy that has created most of our countries health and environmental problems: allowing industries that pollute and create health affecting problems to continue because they make money.
Seriously folks: all these companies need do is THE RIGHT THING instead they try and bribe and extort officials into letting them make profit at the expense of everyone else. Hey, let's take the tens of millions paid to CEOs and pump that money back into preventing the pollution from those companies.... simple answers. When do we, the people, stop being the victims of these criminals? When we stop electing their puppets. You, Rep. Katie Edwards, are apparently one of their puppets.
Charles Grande
4:58PM SEP 4TH 2013
Seriously folks, doesn't anyone realize that even the cleanest water is toxic to the estuaries in the quantities being dumped. Toxic bloom and mortality during the dumping related to the storm events. No problems during the intervening dry years without the massive dumping. Incredible problems now due to the massive dumping. Can we not connect the dots.
Local runoff and septic systems are bad but, the rivers and estuaries can survive as long as the salinity is balanced because flushing and things like oysters are God's cleaning crew. Fresh water kills all the creatures that clean, and all the marine grasses that support them, and the waterways die. Can we not follow the dots?

All because Big Sugar has bought inordinate influence and refuses to at least share the adversity. Less than 15% of the ag land south of the lake would enable a flow way that would end all the problems (including the need to buy their excess production) and they say no. Some folks never did learn to work and play well with others.
2:26PM SEP 6TH 2013
I believe that there are 2 Seminole Indian reservations on the south side that would be affected as well. So I don't think its as easy as saying give up 15% of Ag land. There is a lot more than just swamp and sugarcane south of Clewiston and South Bay.
Charles Grande
4:44PM SEP 4TH 2013
Clearly, Rep. Katie has drunk the Kool-Aid. More than likely because the water is so bad!
Charles Grande
4:43PM SEP 4TH 2013
Clearly, Rep. Katie has drunk the Kool-Aid. More than likely because the water is so bad!
12:07PM SEP 4TH 2013
Federal lawsuit settlement agreement still requires 10ppb at southern end of the EAA. Lake phosphourus levels still inordinately high due primarily to "legacy" phosphorous - it gets resuspended during storm events. Question: Are the dairies and sugar doing all they can? Drive out through the EAA and see where they've planted right up to the ditch lines. Best Mgt. Practices? Need to leave a bigger buffer. Legacy phosphorous in the dairy pastures flushes to the lake in high rainfall events, except on a few model demonstration farms. Yes, let's fix all of the problems, including urban runoff, but with the price support for sugar, it appears more could be done in the EAA by sugar. The dairies? They are fighting for survival and probably need incentives.
Jan Brewster
11:20AM SEP 4TH 2013
It's easy to blame companies for things that are out of their control, but it's wrong to do so. The agriculture industry is vital to the state of Florida. There is absolutely no evidence that there is any pollution from farming. Farming sustains the Florida economy.
7:09PM SEP 4TH 2013
Yeah, right . . . even the sugarcane folks won't buy in to this lie: "There is absolutely no evidence that there is any pollution from farming" . . . . sugarcane producers may not be the main problem, and they're doing a lot of BMPs to help control runoff impacts, but none of them would agree to this outright lie . . . . just truthiness from a know-nothing partisan "Big Lie" right winger . . . .

Pathetic . . . .
Dead waters
10:32AM SEP 4TH 2013
Lets just keep subsidizing the price of sugar in Florida that is not competitive with the free market so it can continue to pollute the waters of Florida which are the real economic engine of our State providing millions of visitors and many more jobs. If they can't grow sugar without it polluting our waters and sell it at a fair market price they should grow something else. The jobs will still be there and perhaps the waterways could be restored. Edwards' record on environmental protections is abhorrent. She is in the pocket of Big Ag at the expense of all else.
2:50PM SEP 4TH 2013
Thought that's what you people would do, try to marginalize (read, trash) the messenger so you can keep being right. Well, you are wrong. Edwards is only asking leaders to look at ALL the evidence before pointing fingers. She wants the problem solved and so do I. Look at the scientific data from SFWMD, Harbor Branch and others, people, don't just believe what you're told.
Rebecca Bruner
9:34AM SEP 4TH 2013
80 YEARS!! of dumping into st lucie canal- 80 (EIGHTY) YEARS - it's finally dead- why can't we cut it off- cut off the dumping. Just pay for it and get this done. Quit apologizing, quit blaming, quit saying facts- the FACT is it is DEAD. IT'S LIFELESS - why do you want to continue this path-why? Why? Who do you blame now after 80 years?? I love my florida-fix all Florida!!!!
8:19AM SEP 4TH 2013
It is so great to see someone with a real life outlook at a complex problem. Knee jerk activists have too long put the blame where science says it doesn't belong.
kitt maynard
1:31PM SEP 3RD 2013
So glad to see a knowledgeable woman who actually sees the real problem, not just to "blame" for blame's sake & is willing to research & state the true facts & move forward accordingly. Great job!
sherry garcia
12:25PM SEP 3RD 2013
Finally, someone who knows all the facts and is willing to fight the battle for all that are involved.
11:20AM SEP 3RD 2013
Finally a voice of intelligence to rise above the partisan hysteria and politics. Be very careful flowing massive amounts of dirty water south even across acres of water treatment areas. Stop the pollution at source but make it the RIGHT source! Katie Edwards for Governor!!!!!
Harold Munson
10:17AM SEP 3RD 2013
Rep. Edwards is right on target! Sugar industry and agriculture in Lake Okeechobee and EAA are being blamed for an "urban" pollution crisis, most predominantly being leaching septic tanks and stormwater runoff!

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