BlogfeaturedSpecial interests attempt to reconfigure Lake O schedule to their benefit

May 5, 2020
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On Tuesday, April 28, 2020, we learned of an attempt being driven by special interests to reconfigure the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, securing their irrigation water supply as the priority consideration for all Lake Okeechobee release decisions. This is being done under the cover of a global pandemic and is the type of political scheme that has hindered Everglades restoration progress for decades.

THE SITUATION

Representative Alcee Hastings proposed that the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure adds language to the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2020. Representative Hastings is urging other members of Congress to support this as well. This effort is part of a back channel campaign to recruit support and quietly slip this language into WRDA where it would become difficult to eliminate it later.

The language that Representative Alcee Hastings is proposing be included in WRDA 2020:

Section 601(h)(5) of Public Law 106-541 applies to the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule and the Secretary shall use the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule in place in December 2000 as the base condition for the analysis required under Section 601(h)(5) of Public Law 106-541

If approved, the proposed rule would have disastrous consequences:

  • Threaten drinking water supply for millions of Floridians.
  • Force the Corps to potentially put human life and property at risk to guarantee water supply by raising the lake to levels that could compromise the integrity of the dike.
  • Disable the Corps from exercising its duty to protect human health, safety, and the environment.
  • Lock in an antiquated regulation schedule from twenty years ago, ignoring evolving environmental factors such as climate change and the impact they have on water scarcity.
  • Seriously jeopardize progress toward managing toxic discharges from Lake Okeechobee and greater ecosystem restoration.
  • Undermine federal and state investments made to date.

HOW YOU CAN FIGHT BACK 

Urge Congress to reject these efforts! We’ve made it easy to send a pre-written email to Congress and it only takes 1 minute. When people speak up on these issues, we can have an affect on the outcome. 

 

AN IN-DEPTH BREAKDOWN WITH CONGRESSMAN BRIAN MAST

Fast-forward to a topic of interest, timestamps below.

7:06  What is the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA)?
8:15  Proposed harmful language + Savings Clause explained
10:35  Pre-2000 water allocations + why is it a bad thing?
12:50  Connecting Savings Clause to Lake O Regulation Schedule
14:46  How much water is enough for industrial agriculture?
16:16  What impact would this have on water users?
18:10  Why are they doing this now?
19:38  USACE Lake O operational flexibility is critical
21:47  US Sugar + sneaky politics

25:00  Water supply + when/how much goes to EAA industrial sugar farms?
32:45  Lake O regulation schedule + fair management for all water users
42:20  Big Sugar political tactics
48:15  Why can’t we find info documented on this yet?
51:27  How can we fight back? Contact Congress
55:56  Q&A: Big Sugar, Florida Bay salinity
1:01:00  Florida aquatic vegetation management + toxic herbicide spraying reform
1:11:53  Final ask

HOW YOU CAN FIGHT BACK 

Urge Congress to reject these efforts! We’ve made it easy to send a pre-written email to Congress and it only takes 1 minute. When people speak up on these issues, we can have an affect on the outcome. 

THE SAVINGS CLAUSE 

The proposed language would connect the new Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) to the “savings clause” within the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). 

The Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule is the new operating manual for Lake Okeechobee targeted for completion in 2022.

The savings clause analysis required under Section 601(h)(5) of Public Law 106-541 applies only to projects implemented under the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) 2000, specifically under the authorization of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP). The analysis is designed to ensure that—as Everglades restoration projects are activated and ecosystem benefits are delivered to the Everglades—water users are protected.

The Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule is not a CERP project and should not be subject to the CERP authorizing language. The proposed language would permanently lock in consumptive water uses that were in place in December 2000 for this and all future Lake Okeechobee operational changes without taking into account dam safety, toxic blue-green algae, climate change, and the state’s inherent ability to allocate water for non-CERP projects and components.

In other words—Lake Okeechobee management decisions would be based upon the needs of special interests. It would prioritize irrigation supply for corporate agriculture over drinking water supply, human health and safety, and the environment, resulting in more polluted discharges, more toxic algae blooms, and less water to the already-suffering Everglades and Florida Bay.

HOW YOU CAN FIGHT BACK 

Urge Congress to reject these efforts! We’ve made it easy to send a pre-written email to Congress and it only takes 1 minute. When people speak up on these issues, we can have an affect on the outcome. 

MEDIA COVERAGE

May 6 TCPalm: Mast, 30 Florida environmental groups oppose savings clause in Lake Okeechobee management plan

May 7 TCPalm Opinion: Don’t let U.S. Sugar grab water; Lake Okeechobee solution must be balanced | Brian Mast

May 10 Sun Sentinel: Farmers want their thumb on Lake Okeechobee water scale

May 12 NBC-2: Lobbyists for sugar industry want Congress to allow more water to be kept in Lake Okeechobee

MOTIVES: WHY ARE THEY DOING THIS?

The industrial sugar industry is not happy about the deviation made by the Army Corps of Engineers to Lake O operations last year—lowering the lake in the dry season to prevent harmful discharges and toxic algal blooms and provide capacity for summer rains. As Hurricane Dorian approached, the Corps then had the flexibility to forgo devastating, high-volume releases. U.S. Sugar filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps for making this deviation, viewing it as a threat to their irrigation water supply, although they are already the largest Lake O water user.

WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING HERE?

The Army Corps is currently undergoing a public planning process to develop a new operations plan called the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM). Adding the proposed language is an effort by the sugar industry to go around that process and guarantee water supply for their profits at the expense of the rest of the state which depends on clean water as our economic driver.

WHAT WE SENT TO CONGRESS

Along with other conservation organizations, we sent the following letter to the Florida Congressional Delegation on April 30, 2020, opposing this attempt and urging Congress to reject it.

Dear Florida Congressional Delegation,

The undersigned representatives of organizations committed to the restoration of America’s Everglades have been advised of a proposal to add language to the 2020 Water Resources Development Act that would make the “Savings Clause” found in section 601(h)(5) of Public Law 106-541 (WRDA 2000) applicable to the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule and direct the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to use the lake regulation schedule in place in December 2000 as the base condition for such analysis. We urge you to reject this proposal for the following reasons.

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 Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule, however, is not a CERP project and predates CERP by decades. The effort currently underway by the Corps to develop a new lake regulation schedule was authorized in WRDA 2018 to address concerns about the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike, not part of CERP implementation for purposes of Everglades restoration. In addition, the Corps’ Programmatic Regulations promulgated pursuant to WRDA 2000 which have been in force for over 10 years conclude that changes to lake regulation schedules as well as the issuance of consumptive use permits under state law are examples of “intervening non-CERP activities” which do not trigger Saving Clause analysis. The Corps has consistently applied this reasoning when evaluating the Savings Clause in the context of numerous project reports and analyses and there is no-compelling reason that is consistent with the goals of Everglades restoration that would warrant changing directions.

The Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule requires the Corps to balance 5 congressionally authorized project purposes for flood control, water supply, navigation, recreation, and preservation of fish and wildlife resources. The proposed language expands the interests of consumptive users far beyond that contemplated in WRDA 2000 and puts an even larger thumb on the scale to the sole benefit of one, but to the detriment of all other stakeholder interests. Indeed, changing a founding principle of CERP after the fact to gain benefit for one party undermines the cooperative spirit of the entire endeavor.

Not only is applying the Savings Clause analysis to the lake regulation schedule without justification, reverting back to the regulation schedule in place in December 2000, the Water Supply and Environment (WSE) schedule, as the base line for such analysis would be disastrous. Under WSE, high water events in 2003, 2004 and 2005 created serious problems in the lake, including extreme high risk that the Herbert Hoover Dike would fail placing surrounding communities at risk of catastrophic flooding and the loss of 45,000 acres of nutrient absorbing marsh vegetation. Fisheries crashed and it took almost a decade for the black crappie population to recover. Hurricanes stirred up the mud bottom in the center of the Lake which raised phosphorus levels and degraded water quality. Nutrient and sediment enriched discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries contributed to harmful algal blooms and damage to estuary ecosystems. By 2004, the Corps had to officially adopt deviations from the WSE schedule to help keep Lake levels lower to avoid these issues. WSE also had no provision to supply the Caloosahatchee Estuary with water during the dry season, even when the Lake was dangerously deep. It was a deeply flawed schedule that should not be returned to.

Lake regulation schedules should be adopted based on sound scientific data, improvements that have been made in weather forecasting, hydrological monitoring and modeling, and performance metrics that reflect optimal conditions for the lake and downstream ecosystems. Following that script is our best chance to manage toxic blue green algae, benefit the greater ecosystem and equitably balance the interests of all stakeholders. Peer reviewed studies and performance metrics that are currently part of the lake regulation schedule record demonstrate the folly of reverting back to the WSE schedule. Doing so condemns us to repeat the mistakes we are aware of and have the ability to avoid.

The proposed language would significantly undermine restoration efforts currently underway and jeopardize billions of dollars of taxpayer money allocated by the federal government and the state of Florida for Everglades and ecosystem restoration that is critical to the long term well-being of Floridians and the Sunshine State Economy. We urge you to reject it.

Sincerely,

Audubon Florida
Captains For Clean Water
Everglades Foundation
Everglades Trust
Florida Oceanographic Society
National Parks Conservation Association
Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation
Conservancy of Southwest Florida
Everglades Law Center
Friends of the Everglades
National Audubon Society
National Wildlife Federation
Tropical Audubon Society