U.S. Sugar announced a lawsuit Thursday morning against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, arguing recent releases from Lake Okeechobee violate the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).
At issue is the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS), which the Army Corps uses to dictate the water levels of the lake.
Under LORS, water levels are typically held between 12.5 and 15.5 feet. But the lawsuit by U.S. Sugar alleges that water levels are being kept below that range without a concomitant Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to determine the effects of doing so.
“Despite this, and contrary to the 2008 Regulation Schedule, the Corps since November 2018 has been releasing unprecedented amounts of water from the Lake, driving the Lake to extreme low levels and man-made drought,” the lawsuit alleges.
Judy Sanchez, who works as Senior Director in the Corporate Communications Public Affairs office for U.S. Sugar, argues the Army Corps’ actions should be reviewed by the U.S. District Court.
“At low lake levels (13 feet and below), the LORS 2008 schedule instructs the Corps to hold water,” Sanchez said.
“By releasing water without preparing a new or updated Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and analyzing the full impacts of that release of water on the lake, the people, and the downstream systems that rely upon its water, the Corps of Engineers has broken its own regulations and violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Administrative Procedure Act.”
The APA authorizes parties to challenge an agency’s actions if it is “arbitrary, capricious, and abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with the law.”
NEPA, meanwhile, requires an agency to assess environmental impacts of its decisions. U.S. Sugar alleges that was not done here.
The 2008 LORS is aimed at ensuring the lake doesn’t get too high or too low. Keeping the lake too high runs to risk of flooding during a storm. It can also cause stress to the Herbert Hoover Dike, which is undergoing upgrades that are scheduled to be complete by 2022.
Those upgrades could allow the lake to safely be kept at higher water levels.
Keeping the lake low also reduces the need for continuous discharges. Those discharges can help contribute to the spread of toxic blue-green algae.
But keeping the lake too low can also create issues. Farmers rely on the lake as a water source, as do several local municipalities, such as West Palm Beach, that utilize water from Lake Okeechobee.
Those low levels can also affect the lake’s marine life. Those concerns have triggered a separate lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity, Calusa Waterkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance, a trio of environmental organizations.
“It’s not often that farmers join these types of groups in litigation,” Sanchez noted, “but when an agency goes rogue and puts Lake Okeechobee and important water resources at risk, we agree the courts need to take control.”
The lawsuit from the environmental groups was filed back in June.
“These releases are killing countless marine species, harming human health, crippling local economies, and violating U.S. laws enacted to protect the environment,” their lawsuit reads.
The filing from U.S. Sugar asks the Court to enjoin the Army Corps from operating outside the 2008 LORS.