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Farmers Curb Runoff, Help Everglades

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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."


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