A sweet transformation is taking place in sugar fields throughout south-central Florida, and the result is good news for the embattled Everglades.
The same farmers who were once accused of polluting the famous "river of grass" with agricultural runoff are now playing an important part in helping to protect the fragile ecosystem.
During the past three years, sugar farmers have cut the amount of phosphorous runoff from their fields by more than 50 percent, opening the way to resolving an environmental problem some observers considered unsolvable 10 years ago.
"We are a lot closer than people realize to a solution," says Curtis Richardson, director of the Duke University Wetlands Center, who has spent nearly a decade studying the impact of farm runoff on the Everglades.
The same issue is being played out in many farming areas across the country where the desire to preserve America's wildlife heritage clashes with the need to fill the nation's grocery basket.
Sugar farmers in Florida are attempting to demonstrate that they can coexist with an endangered natural treasure like the Florida Everglades. They are doing it by changing water-management practices in their fields and by pledging to pay up to $300 million to help build a series of man-made marshes to filter out remaining phosphorous from farm runoff.
The goal is that whatever runoff remains in the water will have no significant impact as it flows slowly south through the Everglades.
Some phosphorous-reduction methods are as simple as applying a limited amount of fertilizer to the root zone of sugar cane. Farmers used to spread fertilizer over the top of the entire field.
Another effective measure is to avoid stirring up phosphorous-rich sediment in irrigation canals while pumping out excess rain water. "It used to be the idea was to get it down and get it dry, but we don't do that anymore," says Alan Hammock, a sugar farmer working 650 acres north of Clewiston. He adds, "And I'll take my hat off to the scientist who discovered that."
Instead of letting phosphorous escape in muddy drainage water, farmers scoop it out after it settles in the mud at the bottom of their canals. They spread the nutrient-rich muck over their fields as recycled fertilizer. That keeps nutrients in the agricultural areas and prevents them from flowing downstream into the Everglades where they do more harm than good.
Cleaner water than before
The farmers' campaign has been so successful that in many fields today the water is cleaner as it leaves the farm than when it was pumped in from nearby Lake Okeechobee.
"At least our activities in the middle of the watershed are not making matters worse," says Robert Buker, senior vice president at US Sugar Corporation, the nation's largest sugar-cane producer.
Farm runoff is an environmental problem throughout the country. But it is particularly acute in the Everglades, where the ecosystem has developed over thousands of years under conditions of very low phosphorous.
Phosphorous is a prime ingredient in fertilizer. It helps plants grow quickly. But not all plants thrive when high levels of phosphorous are present. The native saw grass of the Everglades is well suited for low-phosphorous conditions in which other plants would wilt and die. And amid high phosphorous levels, saw grass can be crowded out by cattails and other fast-growing plants. Such a development would dramatically change the face of the Everglades.
Sugar farmers, environmentalists, and state officials have adopted a plan to spend up to $700 million to construct 41,000 acres of filter marshes to help extract as much phosphorous as possible from farm runoff before the water is discharged into the natural Everglades. The combination of measures being taken by farmers in their own fields and runoff water being routed through filter marshes is expected to bring the level of phosphorous down significantly.
The key question is: How much phosphorous can the saw-grass ecosystem tolerate before the food chain is altered and the Everglades is forever changed?
Farmers: Don't push it
To date, there is no scientific agreement on the answer, only theories. Farmers worry that if environmental requirements become too stringent and cleanup costs too high, they might find themselves an endangered species. Farmers say dramatically cutting phosphorous runoff might involve billions of dollars in water treatment with little added gain for the environment.
"I think there is some kind of idea that we have hens with golden eggs hidden maybe 10 rows over in this cane, and we have an unending supply of money," says Mr. Hammock. "We're out here trying to eke out a living."
Farmers say their runoff isn't the only source of phosphorous in the Everglades. And they say they're willing to clean up their portion of the problem but not all of it.
Dr. Richardson, the Duke researcher, says that 47 percent of the phosphorous in the Everglades comes from sugar fields and the rest comes from Lake Okeechobee, suburban lawns, and cattle ranches and other farms. To date none of these other sources has played a role in paying for cleanup efforts.
Farmers say the ultimate irony is that if they have to bear all the cleanup burden, some of them will have to sell their land. But rather than reverting to a nature preserve, much of it could soon be covered by condos, golf courses, and parking lots. Phosphorous is nontoxic and occurs naturally in Florida water. The same can't be said for the motor oil, antifreeze, and brake fluid that would be carried off parking lots into the Everglades, they say.