This column is a vehicle for a number of items in a bits-and-pieces, strictly opinion, sometimes irreverent format. Look for "Just Sayin'" to run once a week in this spot.
Eight Months on an Anti-Sugar Agenda
A documentary and story The Weather Channel calls its latest attempt "to explore the intersection of weather, the environment and social justice," is beyond disappointing.
Sadly, it's changed my opinion of The Weather Channel (TWC) as an objective, public service channel.
“Toxic Lake: The Untold Story of Lake Okeechobee” begins with a conclusion instead of an investigation -- the conclusion being that Big Sugar and the politics that protect it are responsible for last summer's toxic algae blooms that poisoned wildlife, killed businesses, made residents sick and kept the tourists away.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Even the title, "Toxic Lake," is a misnomer. It isn't the lake that's toxic, it's the water from the north that flows into it. That's just a fact.
The Weather Channel had 8 months to produce something meaningful -- something truly educational, or something that might have been part of the solution. Yet, all they could come up with is the Everglades Foundation's prevailing spin ... it's sugar's fault.
The only absolute truth I could find in the documentary was the total desperation of Stuart residents, who have every right to unravel. It's their plight that fires me up against the bad information they get from people and organizations they trust.
In "Toxic Lake" there was no reference to science. Not a word about the water studies in the St. Lucie estuary completed during 2016.
There was virtually no mention of septic tanks or the human effluent leaking into the canals, rivers, estuary and Indian River Lagoon.
Heck, before we talked Friday, story writer Marcus Stern had never heard of Harbor Branch marine biologist Brian Lapointe -- who knows more than anyone else I know about what exactly is making the Treasure Coast water sick. Lapointe has published more than 90 scientific papers and, by the way, was a contributing author of the book Clean Coastal Waters: Understanding and Reducing Nutrient Pollution, published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
Nor was there any mention of the "bloom dynamics," the environmental facts that caused the algal blooms. So much for exploring "the intersection of weather, the environment and social justice."
Lapointe, hired by Treasure Coast local governments to sample the water, told me Friday the wrong-headedness of The Weather Channel's documentary ignited a spark. "It's inspiration for me," he said. "It was so bad, I vowed to do a documentary myself about the problems in the estuary and lagoon and causes of the blooms."
Another huge omission: The Weather Channel team never sat down with Ernie Barnett, who has more than 30 years of water resources management experience. Barnett contributed to several landmark environmental laws, had a lead role in the Florida Legislature's successful passage of the Lake Okeechobee Protection Act; the Everglades Restoration Investment Act, which has provided more than $1 billion for Everglades restoration; and the Everglades Improvement and Management Act. All that and a ridiculously lengthy resume more.
While we're talking about omissions, why didn't TWC go to the South Florida Water Management District? The SFWMD is the governmental agency that manages water resources in the southern half of the state. It covers 16 counties from Orlando to the Florida Keys and serves a population of 8.1 million. I'm not even sure TWC knows the Everglades is the largest environmental restoration project in the nation's history.
Eight months to produce "Toxic Lake"?
You don't have to love Big Sugar to imagine sugar farmers' anger over a statement like, “From the south, excess water from fertilized sugarcane fields gets pumped into the lake.” This is where the film's irresponsibility shows. Ten years of SFWMD water quality data shows less than 1 percent of the water added to Lake Okeechobee came from the south.
And then there's the line, "Whatever caused Bodi's illness ..." -- spoken over a panorama of sugarcane fields, as if the cane made the Stuart youngster sick. Who films like this?
Writer Marcus Stern reasoned the earthen Herbert Hoover Dike could be removed from the lake, allowing water to flow south naturally from Okeechobee if it weren't for sugar. "If there were no sugar cane, there wouldn't be any people in the Glades to flood," he told me. True. But that's as insulting as saying if there were no houses in Stuart or any other Martin County community, there wouldn't be anybody to care about algal blooms or poisoned water. The Army Corps could release to tide as much water as they want.
In the wettest periods, a dikeless lake, allowing a so-called "natural flow," would kill the Everglades as we know it. Both Lt. Col. Tom Greco of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bob Johnson of Everglades National Park have said publicly that even when restoration is complete, you plain can't -- that's cannot -- send SOUTH more than an additional 235,000 acre-feet of water. Total.
"'Restoration' is perhaps a misnomer, as the focus of this effort is on more natural management of the remaining 50 percent of the Everglades wetlands, not on regaining the 50 percent that has been converted to urban and agricultural use," says the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). "
To repeat, only 50 percent of the original Everglades is left. The other half, the one that got away, is less agriculture than it is the communities like Wellington and Plantation. Does anybody really think we can flow the same amount of water through half a flowway?
Continues the USGS, "Even improving the natural functioning of the remaining wetlands will be a complex problem, due to the lost spatial extent, the hydrologic separation from Lake Okeechobee, and land subsidence. The Everglades will likely continue to be an intensively managed system. However, much as the major engineering effort in the 1950s and 1960s halted the destructive fires and saltwater intrusion of preceding decades, the current restoration effort has the potential to halt and reverse more recent environmental degradation.
So, no, TWC, the Everglades wasn't “drained for sugarcane fields.”
Says USGS, "A major challenge will be to deliver water from Lake Okeechobee through the extensive subsided areas so that it arrives in the undeveloped southern Everglades at similar times, in similar quantities, and with similar quality, as it did prior to drainage and subsidence."
TWC wants to hate sugar and talk about politicians and subsidies and pollution from cane fertilizer? Have at it. But for heaven's sake, while they're visiting us, couldn't they please cover the other side?
Talk about the industry's successes in curbing pollution. Talk about the productive farmland it has already given for restoration. Talk to water experts and scientists and the people who best understand how the parts of Everglades restoration fit together. Consider all the stakeholders in restoration and lake management -- every one of them.
Eight months is plenty of time to do good research.
I wish The Weather Channel would go back, try again and get this right. Stern told me he realizes more needs to be done and I believe him. But even if TWC follows through, I will look forward to an informed Brian Lapointe documentary.
Spirit of Jeb Bush Sneaking into Trump Administration
Jeb Bush is happily (I imagine) out of the Trump Tower fray. But his education ideas -- in fact, the whole family's -- likely will live on in the new administration. In one form or another.
Donald Trump's transition team is getting advice from one-time Bush education staffers Lauren Maddox, the former assistant secretary for communications and outreach at the Education Department; Josh Venable, who worked with Jeb at his education nonprofit; and Terrell Halaska, a former assistant secretary for legislative and congressional affairs in the Education Department.
Some of the former Bush staffers could also end up in the Education Department, which will have to make close to 150 new hires, the publication Education Week said.
The Bush family notably declined to endorse Trump in the election, after Trump frequently used Jeb Bush as a foil during the primaries. Trump was fond of mocking Bush's struggles in the polls and branded him as "low energy." He also criticized George W. Bush for being president during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, attacking the idea that Bush kept the U.S. safe during his presidency.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith