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Sugar farmers work to reduce nutrient runoff into Everglades

Regulations aimed to support farmers while also protecting environment
Tractor in the EAA
Posted at 6:08 PM, Aug 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-31 18:23:04-04

The Everglades are a treasured part of South Florida's environment and critical habitat for countless plant and animal species.

New numbers show efforts to reduce the number of excess nutrients flowing into the Everglades.

U.S. Sugar and similar farming groups are often criticized as the source of some excess nutrients, but they showed WPTV how they’re working to be a part of the solution.

On hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland south of Lake Okeechobee.

U.S. Sugar is among the massive farming companies growing sugar, beans, corn and other crops in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA).

Steven Stiles, area farm manager for sugar industry
Steven Stiles discusses efforts to better manage sugar farms in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

Area manager Steven Stiles has spent decades watching the sugar industry grow along with how best management practices have evolved.

Those regulations are aimed to support farmers while also protecting the environment.

One of those under the Everglades Forever Act requires a 25% reduction of phosphorus in the water that flows south off the farmlands then through water treatment areas and ultimately to the Everglades.

"The standard it has to meet before it goes into the Everglades is in some cases cleaner than rainfall," Stiles said.

Phosphorus in the soil is essential to farming.

"If you don’t have phosphorus, you don't grow it," Stiles said.

But it can devastate plant and wildlife habitats in the Everglades and food sources when it gets into the water. U.S. Sugar announced this year they contributed a 66% reduction in phosphorus runoff.

"Keeping it on site is our target," Stiles said.

Tractor in the EAA
A tractor pulls lasers to make sure farms in the Everglades Agricultural Area are level to reduce runoff.

Stiles showed WPTV some of their practices, which include using laser technology to check that fields are level. The tractors pull those lasers, detecting uneven areas.

"When he runs over a spot that's lower than level, it'll drop dirt out," Stiles said.

Level land keeps water from running off into the web of canals. But those canals also have ways of filtering the water before it flows to pumps that would take water off the farm property.

Muck is also removed with heavy-duty equipment.

Muck removed from irrigation and draining ditches near farms in EAA
Muck is removed from irrigation and draining ditches near farms in the Everglades Agricultural Area and placed back on fields.

"When we clean the muck that's inside our drainage ditches and irrigation ditches, it's the same muck that was on the field," Stiles said. "So, we put it right back on the field."

But the water that is pumped out is sampled and tested.

In pump stations around the EAA there are hundreds of samplers that take samples of the water that leaves the farm to measure just how much phosphorus is present.

Viles of water are sent to various labs where the phosphorus levels are studied and the annual percentages are calculated.

"That allows everything in the Everglades to be more natural, the way it needs to be," Stiles said.