JENSEN BEACH — If Malcolm “Bubba” Wade felt a twinge of sympathy for the dumped-on St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon, his glib tone did a fine job of masking it.
“Another red letter day for the Sugar Barons,” he said, apparently joking, during Thursday’s meeting of the Water Resources Advisory Commission, where his industry was booed by fed-up locals in the audience.
Wade, a vice president with U.S. Sugar Corp., then proceeded to criticize the one idea that advocates believe could bring real relief from the massive discharges of Lake Okeechobee water:
The construction of a “flow way” south.
“Just be careful about using as your No. 1 tactical weapon your flow way. I think it could backfire on you,” the mustachioed sugar exec said during the meeting at Indian RiverSide Park, where signs are posted warning of blue-green algae in the lagoon.
Mark Perry, another commission member and executive director of Florida Oceanographic Society, recently renewed the push for a flow way from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades. He and other river advocates say it offers a remedy to the releases that have prompted toxic algae blooms in the St. Lucie River.
But Wade didn’t want to give the concept any traction.
He claimed the idea — specifically the modified “Plan 6” proposal that would require buying 53,000 acres south of the lake — “didn’t make sense” when it was proposed years ago “and it makes no more sense today.”
He offered no alternative, just deflection of blame for the St. Lucie River’s current crisis.
“Your problem with that water is not us,” Wade told the commission, which advises the South Florida Water Management District’s Governing Board. “It’s north of the lake.”
His position of opposition shouldn’t surprise anyone.
U.S. Sugar and the state’s other giant sugar company, Florida Crystals, have sweet deals in the Everglades Agricultural Area. They get prime irrigation for their crops, and their industries are propped up by federal price supports in the Farm Bill.
What was surprising was how little pushback Wade got from the majority of the Water Resources Advisory Commission.
Kevin Powers, a Martin County native, is vice chair of the commission and of the water management district’s Governing Board. He lives on the St. Lucie River in Stuart, and his late father, Timer Powers, was a well-respected leader who helped broker landmark water deals.
Kevin Powers has an opportunity to emerge as a leader in this crisis, but he was largely silent Thursday.
As a start, he could help by reviving talks about buying more land south of the lake.
The South Florida Water Management District has six years remaining on an option to buy 107,000 acres south of Lake Okeechobee from U.S. Sugar.
Perry said the district should “absolutely” be talking about exercising the option.
Yes, it’s expensive.
Yes, it would take time to figure out how to use the land for a flow way.
But the toxic conditions in the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon are exacting a toll throughout the local economy.
It’s expensive, too.
And there’s no end in sight.
Charter fishing guide Mike Conner, who attended Thursday’s meeting, said he’s driving clients more than 100 miles south in search of cleaner water.
During the past month, he has guided three paid trips. Last year, the number was 13.
He has tried to bill the South Florida Water Management District and Army Corps of Engineers for his lost income.
He’s still waiting for a response.
Wade may not think a man-made flow way makes sense.
Letting the damage to the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon continue is even more nonsensical.
Eve Samples is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. This column reflects her opinion. Contact her at 772-221-4217 or firstname.lastname@example.org.