Rep. Katie Edwards on Lake Okeechobee: Let's Be Careful Who We Blame
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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.
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423.