Game Changer: Experts Say The Stop Harmful Discharge Act Can Help Right Away

Congressman Brian Mast recently introduced the Stop Harmful Discharges Act (HR 6700).  It is a potential game-changer for Everglades Restoration. Bullsugar.org was honored to be part of the team that worked on the bill. The bill's language is simple, but it contains important ideas that are critical to fixing South Florida's water problems.

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The catalyst for this bill is an undeniable fact: Floridians are being poisoned by their government. This is not hyperbole. In the estuaries receiving toxic cyanobacteria discharges from Lake Okeechobee, pets are dying and humans are testing positive for cyanotoxins that cause immediate harm and are linked to deadly liver and neurological diseases.

If you have followed Bullsugar over the last few years you know that the key to stopping discharges, restoring the Everglades, protecting South Florida's drinking water, and slowing the impacts of sea level rise is adding enough storage and treatment south of Lake Okeechobee to both clean water and also send enough south. You also know that Big Sugar, aka Florida Crystals and US Sugar, are blocking the solution.

The recently authorized EAA Reservoir shrank dramatically after an all-out lobbying and media campaign by Big Sugar. At best the EAA Reservoir is a partial fix.  At worst, it is a waste of time and money. Hopefully our next governor will appoint a qualified, independent SFWMD board, and will push to make the EAA Reservoir work, especially by adding more treatment marshes to clean more water.

In the meantime, what can be done? That is where Congressman Mast's bill comes in. Instead of focusing on the complexities of CERPs 68 infrastructure projects, HR 6700 focuses on the priorities and operational rules that govern where and when the SFWMD and the Army Corps send the water.

To see exactly what HR 6700 does and doesn't do, please click here to review the Stop Harmful Discharges Act fact sheet. You can also see the text of the legislation here.

It might be helpful to explain what Bullsugar was thinking conceptually when working on this legislation, and address some questions that have come up in recent weeks.

Bullsugar has written extensively about the injustice of water management operations, which prioritize sugarcane yield over both human health and the Everglades. Water managers say they prioritize human health and safety, but they mean only flood control. And even with flood control, they are being untruthful. For example, after Hurricane Irma they drained sugarcane fields and sent the water into a dangerously high lake with a dam in danger of collapse.  This only put Glades communities at greater risk.

Federal water managers equate flood control for humans with flood control for sugar fields.  This false equivalence means they don't track how much water is drained off of sugar fields, so no one can see the extent of their deception. They should track it. The public has a right to know how much water is being drained off EAA fields into taxpayer-owned reservoirs and treatment marshes.

One could go as far to say that unless operational rules and priorities are fixed, CERP could ultimately be nothing more than a massive, costly sugar industry infrastructure project, with marginal benefit for the natural system and other stakeholders. By the time we all realize it, it may be too late to change.

What can be done to address operations?  One clue: at the Everglades Coalition Conference in 2017, Senator Bob Graham gave the keynote speech in which he stated Congress needed to update the law that governs the operational priorities of South Florida's water management system, known as the Central and Southern Florida project. This idea stuck with us, so last spring we vetted that idea with several Everglades Restoration experts, including Senator Graham himself. The consensus was that yes, Congress has the exclusive right to alter the underlying law that governs water management in South Florida. With the stroke of a pen, they can  force the Army Corps to not poison people anymore.

In other words, this legislation will work.

Just to be sure, we expanded our team to include seasoned experts with decades of knowledge and contacts within the Army Corps and Congress. We didn't want to get the idea right just to  get tripped up on some arcane Corps language, and we didn't want anyone suggesting we hadn't been thorough.

What emerged from this process is not simply hope or a theory, or bluster... This is a serious effort, a viable fix. Not in 20 years, but now. With building support in congress and growing awareness in communities still reeling from another summer of toxic blooms, The Stop Harmful Discharges Act can make a real difference, not just on our coasts but throughout the entire system that Everglades Restoration was designed to revitalize. It deserves our full support.

Despite the expertise behind it, we’ve seen misguided criticism of HR 6700. There are three questions that reflect common misconceptions:

Why doesn't the bill get into operational criteria specifics?

This is a feature, not a bug. Environmentalists continually fall into the trap of feeling they need to tell government scientists how to do their job. When government agencies are as politicized and captured as the SFWMD is now, the result will be a wonky spiral into the weeds, and the environmentalists lose the argument even if their science is better. We saw exactly that happen in the EAA Reservoir scoping process. Look at the SFWMD's determination to move forward with deep injection wells (DIW). It's a suckers' game.

It is far better to tell water managers what the system's goals are and what the operational priorities must be. Big Sugar understands this and always has. They always end up with critical guarantees and priorities, while armchair scientists at dozens of nonprofits quibble over the engineering details, and then watch the government scientists do whatever they want anyway.

HR 6700 gives the Army Corps some very specific direction. In addition to finally putting human health and safety first, it corrects a huge flaw in operations that environmentalists have completely missed for decades.

The South Florida Water Management System is the exact footprint of the Greater Everglades Watershed. The watershed is a system, and what happens in one part of the system impacts the rest of it. However it isn't managed as one system, it is broken up into multiple compartments for no clear reason, except to blur the fact that winners and losers are being picked. This compartmentalization has tricked us all for way too long.

HR 6700 directs the Army Corps to de-compartmentalize the operations of the Everglades so that the system can be managed as a system. Then systemwide priorities can be monitored and enforced.

LORS is just one compartment of this system. The planned 2019 revisit of LORS will be a sham if it doesn't address the need to de-compartmentalize system operations. The operations south of Lake Okeechobee pretend that the lake doesn't exist--that is absurd. In written responses to questions by Congressman Mast, the Army Corps said sugar fields are drained "independent and regardless" of the safety of the dike or the presence of cyanobacteria. These artificial compartments have hidden the extent to which water managers prioritize sugarcane over health and safety. We must de-compartmentalize, not just tweak the rules within LORS.

It doesn't take a scientist to understand this kind of trickery, it just takes some critical thinking. When we get dragged down into the weeds, we lose sight of the big picture.

Why wasn't the Miccosukee Tribe "at the table?"

Working with Congressman Mast, we moved quickly and quietly. We knew there would be opportunities to edit along the way, but wanted to get the big concepts out there first. We have been in talks with the Miccosukee Tribe, as has Congressman Mast, to address their concerns.

We understand that others in the system are concerned that lessening adversity to the estuaries might increase adversity to them. No one has a greater claim to clean water and a healthy ecosystem than the Tribes. We understand that they get inundated with dirty water now, even though they have federal and state laws protecting them. We will fight to keep those water quality rules in place, to reduce nutrient pollution at its source and to increase storage and treatment. We know that the state of Florida, SFWMD and, most of all, Big Sugar are trying to remove water quality rules that protect Tribal lands. We know that the Tribes have been lied to many times. Their skepticism is justified.

We are not dumping our problems on others. There is language in the bill to ensure this. However we also cannot sit idly by while the government dumps toxins on our community, with no intention to stop. We don't apologize for taking action to try to stop these policies, and we are grateful to have a champion in Congressman Mast who feels the same way.

The communities on our estuaries have never been "at the table."  The St Lucie does not need one drop of water from Lake Okeechobee, and gets no benefits from the system.  It is simply a sewer pipe for other stakeholders in the system. People have fought to change this for a long time, but now the discharges carry toxic cyanobacteria. Something needs to change.

There is one dominant special interest, Big Sugar, that always wins in this system. It is not an accident that they are also the only ones who are fighting the long term fix of more storage and treatment. For us to succeed, all of the other stakeholders who suffer adversity because the system is undersized and operated to prioritize sugarcane must work together and support each other. If all of us "losers" are in-fighting, the status quo remains and Big Sugar remains the sole "winner."

Where will the water go if it doesn't go east and west?

The implication is that we shouldn't try to stop the government from dumping toxins on us because everyone else is afraid they might have to share more adversity.

More to the point: people are saying that by demanding the government stop poisoning us, we are going to cause the government, under sugar's influence, to do unscientific things like deep injection wells (DIW).

How about this idea instead: if we work together we can build enough political will to ensure that the next governor and SFWMD governing board will toss DIW plans in the wastebasket. There is nothing in the "Stop Harmful Discharges Act" that makes DIW any less stupid or any more likely than maintaining the unacceptable status quo does.

We have a problem and something must be done. Don't tell us to be quiet about it because you're afraid the government won't fix the problem the right way.

There are practical things that can be done right now, but they also require political leadership. Luckily, we have it--for the first time ever.  A sitting United States Congressman is asking the Army Corps and SFWMD tough questions that get to the heart of 'where the water can go.' We believe that Congressman Mast is a real champion.  His efforts are not going to fade after the election.

The Congressman is asking about lowering the lake coming into the rainy season. This is the easiest immediate fix: send water south in the dry season when the STAs have capacity to clean it and send it to the Everglades where it is needed. We did it in 2015 and we can do it again.

We need to continue exploring ways to manage this system without forcing toxic water on other communities, while we work with urgency to increase storage and treatment capacity south, until nobody experiences adversity. Our doors are always open for all serious comments, questions and concerns along the way. We’re in this together.





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