A sugary science lesson in response to Nancy Smith

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So just like my morning coffee with sugar, or my occasional sweet treat in the afternoon, it seems like no one can get enough of sugar stories these days. Case in point, two of my highlights in Sunburn yesterday were about the sugary stuff – The Times/Southerland debacle and subsequent crap correction and, of course, the ridiculous paragraph and the Correction of the Day. Oh wait, that is actually four mentions of sugar. Sorry, my confusion must be from a sugar rush.

Opening an email from some far-left environmentalists (not my typical crowd, I will admit) who were interested in the sugar issue but not in the way I imagined. I would have expected said email to read more like a “tar and feather those guys” call to arms, or a “look, we have them on the run, now go for the kill shot,” (pardon the double pun on that last one.) Instead the email was more about correcting the record of the Sunshine State News. Now to be fair, I will admit, I am a big fan of sugar.  No, no, not just the actual white powdery stuff – I actually like the industry and the people who run it. I have also written and have loudly said that I hold the King Ranch hunting stories to be nonsense and non-news. But I do like to be fair and point out when editorialized columns have factually inaccurate statements. After all an opinion editorial should be someone’s opinion but when you are discussing science guys should get a chance at the mic.

What I am referring to is the Nancy Smith’s column titled: “Water Quality Shows 19th Consecutive Year of Passing Marks,” posted on August 14.  Clearly an “atta boy” column pitched to Smith by Sugar – which is what Sugar should do. Get good press in the midst of bad press, or in this case let’s just call it press without a descriptor.

I read the column and did not think much of it, still do not. Until my new enviro-friend (read: a bit crazy of a friend actually, but everyone has to have a cause.) pointed out that while her statements (Smith) and their claim (Sugar) may be true, it is based on a flawed formula.

In fact, the phrase that actually piqued my interest was the analogy of it’s like a Biggest Loser contestant being given credit for weight loss at Weight Watchers prior to going on the show so the percentage of weight loss looks greater in the end.

So I got interested…

Here is how it was explained to me: When water managers announced that phosphorus-reduction results for the most recent water year were two times better than expected last week, they don’t actually use the correct baseline.  So they were “passing” before the first WOD permits (the permits that require the BMPs) were issued in 1992. I would point you to the chart on page 4-12 in the link below, where you can see that, based on the compliance formula they use, in 1992 it would have been a 41% reduction. Again, this was before the District’s BMP regulatory program was even in place.

If you’re going to measure the success of a program, you have to start with the right measuring stick. For the BMP regulatory program administered by the South Florida Water Management District, the results are not measured from the date of the program’s inception. Instead, water managers use a baseline that ended in 1988; the BMP regulatory program did not start until 1992, and the first year for actually measuring compliance was 1996.

Using the Biggest Loser analogy, instead of “weighing in” at the start of the BMP regulatory program in 1992, the industry got to use its “weight” from 1978-1988 as its baseline. A lot of advancements happened with sugar production between the cut off for the baseline and the first day of measuring compliance, most of which had nothing to do with actually trying to reduce pollution. Sugar moved from using human labor to a mechanized process.  Don’t get me wrong, reductions are reductions, but to suggest they are the result of a stringent regulatory program to fight pollution isn’t entirely accurate.  And it does seem a little odd to compare the results of a mechanized process with a baseline set during a period where human labor dominated.

A kid using this type of methodology probably wouldn’t get past the first round of an elementary school science fair. (I really cannot wait for Ella to do a school science project by the way, although I am not ready for her to go to school yet.)

The other misleading thing about Smith’s article is the headline that this is the 19th year of “passing marks,” I am told. She says, “This is the 19th consecutive year that the region has reduced more phosphorus than the goal, according to the district.”  Not true.  The goal is 25% reduction. In 2007, the sugar farms achieved only an 18% reduction. But the industry is actually allowed to be below the 25% reduction requirement for three years before being deemed “not in compliance.” So while the industry has been “in compliance” for 19 consecutive years, it has not always achieved reductions greater than the goal.

For those of you that emailed me complaining about my defense of Big Sugar and always calling out the Times on their “sugary coverage,” there you have it. Fair and balanced, while pointing out a tasty fact and correction that the enviros told me would be accurate. Details matter, no matter which side of the water, sugar cane or state line you are on.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.