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Scientists: Hurricanes Hasten Need for Big Sugar Deal

September 5, 2008

Lake Okeechobee, FL - When hurricanes and high winds threaten Florida's coastline, high water threatens Lake Okeechobee. As the lake level rises, the water has nowhere to go, so officials dump it into neighboring river estuaries to protect surrounding communities from flooding. However, marine scientist Rae Ann Wessel says these "releases" are severely damaging Florida's wildlife and waterways.

"We've seen fish kills, impacts to oysters and sea grasses, and other nonmotile species that can't get out of the way of the foul water."

Wessel says the answer lies in acquiring land from nearby processing company U.S. Sugar, to store and treat the overflow. Paul Gray, science coordinator for the Lake Okeechobeee Watershed Project for Audubon of Florida, says what's being called the "sugar land deal" would provide nearly 200,000 acres of storage and help stretch water supplies during drought.

"When we get this wonderful blessing from (Hurricane) Fay, all this fresh water, we end up having to throw it away because we don't have any place to store it. Being able to acquire the U.S. Sugar land allows us to hold onto this water."

Opponents argue jobs will be lost if the sugar processor's land deal goes through, but scientists contend more jobs are at risk if South Central Florida's ecosystem is destroyed. Governor Crist supports the sugar land idea.

Gina Presson/Don Mathisen, Public News Service - FL