South Florida farmers sue Army Corps of Engineers over management of Everglades project water levels

everglades - Florida
Plaintiffs say the Army Corps is violating the 2000 Water Resources Development Act.

South Florida sugar farmers are suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, alleging the Corps is ignoring federal law in its planning process for the Comprehensive Everglades Planning Project (CEPP).

“The water millions of South Floridians depend upon is at risk because the Corps has decided to ignore federal water law,” said Judy Sanchez, U.S. Sugar’s Senior Director for Corporate Communications and Public Affairs.

“South Florida farmers are asking that the Corps uphold the federal commitment that environmental restoration would be achieved while maintaining a sustainable South Florida water supply — this promise was the cornerstone of the 2000 Congressional authorization as well as key to creating the broad coalition of support that passed CERP (Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan).”

The CEPP is a part of the broader restoration plan.

U.S. Sugar, the Okeelanta Corporation and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida all filed separate complaints Thursday alleging a violation of the 2000 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). The Okeelanta Corporation is a subsidiary of Florida Crystals.

The 2000 version of WRDA 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.

In practice, it’s supposed to guarantee a sufficient amount of water is kept at a source existing at the time WRDA was enacted unless another source of water is created.

The complaints filed Thursday argue that’s not being done with the A-2 section of CEPP, which includes a stormwater treatment area and a reservoir. Instead, plaintiffs argue, the Corps is using a 2008 baseline to determine whether the Corps is complying with the savings clause.

An Army Corps spokesperson declined to comment on the allegations, citing a policy of withholding comment on ongoing litigation.

As alleged in the Okeelanta complaint, the Corps’ saving clause analysis “did not use the Corps’ pre-CERP baseline as required by its own regulation. Instead, it used a different baseline, specifically, the 2008 Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (‘LORS 2008’). LORS 2008 was a temporary schedule adopted specifically to protect the Herbert Hoover Dike during repairs by lowering average water levels in the lake.”

That baseline “provides a much lower water supply performance” than is required under WRDA 2000, the lawsuit alleges. In other words, plaintiffs say the process would allow the Army Corps to keep water levels lower than they should be.

“Promises — especially those made by statute and rule — are meant to be kept,” said Matthew B. Hoffman, CEO and President of Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida.

“Unfortunately, the Corps has broken a promise to our farmers, putting our growers, their livelihoods, and the community’s drinking water at risk.”

The plaintiffs say they’re not trying to stop construction of the A-2 section, which is still ongoing. But they are asking a U.S. District Court to stop the Army Corps from operating the section until they’re in compliance with 2000 WRDA.

“U.S. Sugar remains as committed today as it was in 2000 to all of the CERP projects, including storage projects located north, south, east and west of Lake Okeechobee,” Sanchez said.

“In this lawsuit, we simply are seeking clarity to show the ‘savings clause’ still applies while maintaining our longstanding support for all of the Everglades restoration projects.”

The debate over the state’s water levels has been ongoing for years, most recently with discussions surrounding a new Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule.

Thursday’s lawsuits are targeting a different issue in CEPP construction. But such disputes are likely to continue as different groups wrestle over having sufficient water supply.

“In dry periods, when we can’t count on rainfall and Lake Okeechobee’s levels are low, many of our farms simply cannot access water,” said Jaime Vega, Florida Crystals vice president of agriculture.

“When that happens, we either lose our crops or the crops’ yields are significantly reduced, especially with a crop like rice. Any time you reduce the irrigation water a crop requires, no matter what crop it is, the yields will be hurt.”

“If farmers don’t have a reliable source of water, as was guaranteed to us, everyone loses,” added John L. Hundley, a member of the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida Board of Directors and president of Hundley Farms, Inc.

“The Corps needs to stand by their word, and we hope the Court recognizes the importance of the commitment that was made to farmers and the community.”

Ryan Nicol

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to [email protected]


3 comments

  • Alex

    August 28, 2021 at 1:59 pm

    Big $ugar government supported (about $4 billion a year) destroyers of the Everglades pretend to be the victim.

    Meanwhile sugar prices in the US are double the rest of the world.

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