Congressional hearing on Everglades restoration draws bipartisan support

September 28, 2020

Washington, DC–On September 24th the U.S. Congressional Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment held a hearing addressing water management in Florida. The hearing included testimony from water and industry experts and members of Congress fighting for Everglades restoration projects and lower water levels on Lake Okeechobee during the dry season.

Included in the testimony was expert witness testimony from Shannon Estenoz from the Everglades Foundation, Chauncey Goss Chairman of the South Florida Water Management District, Noah Valenstein from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Captain Elizabeth Jolin of the Bay and Reef Company of the Florida Keys, and Gary Ritter of the Florida Farm Bureau.

The outstanding show of bipartisan support from Congress members for Everglades restoration and better management practices for Florida’s public water resources was evidenced by the number of congress members who donated their speaking time to clean water champions, Representative Brian Mast of Stuart and Representative Debbie Mucarsel-Powell of West Miami/Homestead.

The resounding message from Rep. Mast, Rep. Mucarsel-Powell, and a few of the expert witnesses was that the status quo water management system is not working. It’s benefiting one special interest group at the expense of all others including Florida’s coastal estuaries, the Everglades, public health and drinking water supply for millions.

Both Mast and Mucarsel-Powell read opening statements chastising the last minute changes to portions of the Water Resources and Development Act passed in July, that essentially weakened the bill’s ability to prioritize public water supply over private interests, increase water flows south of Lake Okeechobee, protect stability of the Herbert Hoover Dike and allow the Army Corps to employ operational flexibility of lake management.

Mast continued his testimony by calling out the industrial sugar empires in the EAA for using Lake Okeechobee as their private water supply to the detriment of the communities and water resources to the east and west coasts.

“This is how we’re poisoned year after year, and I don’t want anybody to make a mistake: we are poisoned. The Corps and the EPA have both stated the water that we’re discussing right now is toxic,” said Rep. Brian Mast.

“There is a complicated patchwork of infrastructure and an even more complicated policy about where to move water and when to move water. While all the policies may be complicated, the goal is simple: to use taxpayer dollars to store water for irrigation south of Lake Okeechobee, then demand that my community be the flood control when too much water is stored.”

The testimony expressed by Mast, Mucarsel-Powell and a few of the witnesses can be summarized in the following asks:

  • Expedite critical Everglades restoration projects that represent the long-term approach to restore the flow of water south including the Central Everglades Plan, Tamiami Trail bridges, and the Everglades Reservoir.
  • Formalize the Army Corps’ option to use a short-term water management strategy that would balance competing needs for water supply and flood protection and protect people and natural systems from harm. This strategy would allow the Corps to move water south early in the dry season to create capacity on the lake for rainfall in the wet season and eliminate the need for harmful Lake O releases.

At the end of the session, Rep. Mucarsel-Powell asked the five panelists that testified that day for a yes or no answer to the question: “Do you think that the status quo, as it stands today—the way the lake is being managed—is acceptable?”

In a very telling exchange, four of the five panelists said “no,” the water management must change, while Gary Ritter of the Florida Farm Bureau replied, “The way it’s being managed right now, we agree.”