A collection of advocacy groups is urging members of the Florida congressional delegation to back a provision in a federal water law that would boost Lake Okeechobee’s water levels.
Those letters were sent to U.S. Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart, Lois Frankel and Alcee Hastings — along with Gov. Ron DeSantis — as Congress hammers out language in the upcoming Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).
At issue is the perpetual debate over where precisely to keep the lake’s water levels.
The 2000 version of WRDA — which is renewed by Congress periodically — contained a provision known as the “savings clause.” That provision is used “as a means to protect users of legal sources of water supply and to protect the levels of service for flood protection that were in place at the time of enactment,” according to a summary by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
That is, a sufficient amount of water must be kept at a source which existed at the time WRDA was enacted unless another source is created.
In a letter to Díaz-Balart, dozens of groups and individuals representing farmers, cities and utilities say the Army Corps is not abiding by that language.
“We recently learned though that the Corps is ignoring a critical feature of WRDA 2000, the savings clause,” the letter reads.
“The Corps seeks to unilaterally free itself of complying with WRDA 2000. If allowed to do so, Florida’s existing and future water supply will be jeopardized at a time when we need assurances that sufficient water will be available for everyone.”
The lake currently sits below 11.5 feet and has been even lower in recent weeks. That’s outside the lake’s standard range of between 12.5 and 15.5 feet.
But according to a statement given to POLITICO, the Army Corps says that 2000 WRDA language does not apply here.
“CERP envisioned another regulation schedule for management of water in the lake, at which point the savings clause would apply,” Corps spokesperson John Campbell told the outlet, referring to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.
In a letter to Frankel, Temperince Morgan of The Nature Conservancy says the 2020 version of WRDA should be amended to ensure the Army Corps is clearly bound by the savings clause when making decisions on Lake Okeechobee’s water levels.
“The USACE has determined the savings clause is not applicable to Lake Okeechobee operations, despite the fact that lake operations are a critical component of CERP implementation,” Morgan wrote.
“We strongly believe that the USACE must follow the CERP requirements and apply the savings clause as it updates Lake Okeechobee operations.”
The Business Development Board of Palm Beach County agrees, per a letter to Hastings.
“When Congress passed WRDA 2000, it included Lake Okeechobee as part of WRDA 2000. This was an essential element then, and it is just as important now.”
Several environmental groups backed the view of the Army Corps in a separate letter.
“Savings clause analysis only applies to changes from date of enactment of WRDA 2000 that result from implementation of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) and is to be conducted as CERP projects are brought online to ensure ecosystem benefits are realized while protecting water users as those ecosystem benefits are delivered to the Everglades,” the letter says.
“The Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule (LORS), however, is not a CERP project and predates CERP by decades.”
The 2008 LORS is aimed at ensuring the lake doesn’t get too high or too low.
Keeping the lake too high runs the 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 if the lake is too low, that can create serious issues also.
Farmers rely on the lake as a water source, as do several local municipalities, such as West Palm Beach.
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast has been a vocal supporter of keeping those lake levels low, with a particular aim of reducing the need for discharges which could affect his district.
But several ongoing CERP projects aim to reduce the need for those discharges as well, thanks to the construction of reservoirs to catch that toxic water.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has supported a lower Lake O level, despite the protests of many farmers in the area. The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians wrote the Governor directly, also speaking out in support of raising the lake to its normal levels.
“Due to the mismanagement of water levels during this past year, there are currently system-wide water shortages throughout the remainder of the Everglades Ecosystem, the letter reads.”
“The same political influences that drove the disastrous mismanagement of Lake Okeechobee water levels are now calling for Lake Okeechobee to be managed at 10.5 feet. The Everglades is a unique system and must be managed as a system — not just for the exclusive benefit or to the detriment of one area.”