Drew Bartlett, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), told the SFWMD Governing Board Thursday there are no indications a recent lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will delay construction projects related to Everglades restoration.
Last month, several farming organizations sued the Corps, alleging the planning process for a portion of the Comprehensive Everglades Planning Project (CEPP) did not comply with federal law. U.S. Sugar, the Okeelanta Corporation, and the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida each filed separate complaints in the U.S. District Court arguing the A-2 section of CEPP violates the 2000 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA). The Okeelanta Corporation is a subsidiary of Florida Crystals.
The A-2 section includes a stormwater treatment area and a reservoir. Those organizations have maintained they’re not looking to delay construction but are asking for water levels in those areas to be kept at a higher baseline once construction is finished.
During a Thursday meeting of the SFWMD Governing Board, Bartlett said he spoke with Army Corps officials and they expressed optimism the lawsuit would not affect the Corps’ construction timelines.
“We are counting on them to build these projects,” Bartlett said. “I have had conversations with the Corps. They assure me they are not delaying any projects associated with (CEPP).”
Bartlett said the Corps is continuing to issue contracts related to the projects. Supporters of the suit have also said they hope construction is not affected.
“I am thrilled that the plaintiffs took care to file a narrowly tailored lawsuit which does not interfere with the ongoing construction of any Everglades projects or disrupt the state’s tremendous progress in the Everglades that has been made over the last decade,” said former Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Herschel Vinyard. “This lawsuit seeks only to protect, as required by law, the water supply needs of all of South Florida.”
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 effect, the savings clause is supposed to guarantee officials maintain a sufficient amount of water in existing sources unless another source of water is created.
The complaints argue the Army Corps used the wrong baseline to determine whether they comply with the savings clause. Plaintiffs say the Corps is using a 2008 baseline for comparison, which would allow those water levels to remain lower. Those lower levels would not allow an adequate water supply for their farmland, the complainants argue.
Bartlett said as the lawsuit moves forward, he may come to the Board to ask to intervene in the case. But that request would come later.
“We will continue to monitor it,” Bartlett added.