Lawsuit over lake releases dismissed, U.S. Sugar will not appeal; Army Corps to focus on retaining water in lake this dry season

CLEWISTON — A lawsuit over the freshwater sent to tide to lower Lake Okeechobee during the 2018-2019 dry season has been dismissed by the United States District Court Southern District of Florida.

The plaintiff, U.S. Sugar, has no plans to appeal, because the corps has no plans to release excess freshwater to tide this dry season.

On Dec. 19, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Col. Andrew Kelly announced the corps will focus on retaining water in the lake.

“We’re looking at a relatively normal dry-season forecast,” said Col. Kelly. “We will focus on a projected lake level that ensures we maintain enough water in the lake to enter wet season without water supply concerns.”

“The court’s recent ruling accepted the Army Corps’ statements that it has ceased all discharges of Lake Okeechobee water under the 2018 and 2019 Additional Operational Flexibility actions,” said U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Clayton Sanchez. “While the court case was dismissed because it involved the Army Corps’ past actions, the Army Corps clearly acknowledged it will not continue discharging water as it did in 2018 and 2019.”

In their motion to the judge, the corps stated, “The exercises of (additional operational flexibility) that plaintiff challenges are history.”

The corps further noted, “any potential future exercises of additional operational flexibility would be announced to the public anew, based on future circumstances and defined by a desired outcome or time-period.” “Accepting the Army Corps’ argument, the court granted the Army Corps’ motion, finding a repeat of the 2018 or 2019 deviations unlikely,” said Ms. Sanchez. “With this ruling, we are hopeful the Army Corps’ future decisions will be consistent with their representations to the court and the court’s order. U.S. Sugar has no intention of appealing this ruling, because we accomplished what we set out to do: rein in the Army Corps’ rogue operations outside the existing, publicly approved Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule.

“Following this lawsuit, a dry summer, and the driest September on record, we appreciate that the Army Corps is finally showing concern over water supply for millions of South Floridians and the environment,” she added.

The additional 2018-2019 dry season freshwater releases (over the amount required to be released to the Caloosahatchee River to combat saltwater intrusion) amounted to enough water to raise Lake Okeechobee by about 1 foot. One inch on the big lake is about 12 billion gallons of water.

When the corps made the decision to lower Lake Okeechobee during the 2018-2019 dry season, a normal wet season was predicted. Instead, South Florida experienced the shortest wet season in recorded history, as well as the driest September in recorded history.

So far the dry season has only brought about 58 percent of average rainfall, according to the report shared at the Dec. 12 meeting of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board.

On Dec. 5, the corps released the draft RECOVER Lake Okeechobee Stage Envelope Performance Measure, which found the healthiest range for the lake is 12 feet to 15 feet above sea level; ideally ending the wet season at 15 feet, gradually declining to 12 feet by the end of the dry season, and then slowly rising again to 15 feet over the course of the wet season. Gradual rises are critical to the lake’s submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), which can be lost if the water level rises faster than the plants can grow. The low lake levels at the end of the dry season allow sunlight to reach the lake bottom and plants to sprout. If the water rises too quickly, the young SAV might not get enough sunlight. However, if the lake level is too low for too long, woody plants can take over the marshy areas around the lake’s edges, destroying that habitat.

The SAV is the lake’s natural filter system. It also provides critical habitat for fish and feeding grounds for birds and other wildlife.

At the Dec. 12 SFWMD meeting, water managers were warned that depending on rainfall, they could be looking at water shortages in 2020. On Dec. 22, the lake level was at 13 feet.

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