Nature Conservancy asks Congress to protect water supply

WASHINGTON D.C. — A diverse group of South Florida community leaders is calling on Congress to ensure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers protects the water supply for South Florida when finalizing the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM).

The corps is currently developing the LOSOM, which is expected to be ready by the end of 2022, when repairs of the Herbert Hoover Dike are expected to be complete.U.S. Congressman Brian Mast of Stuart has urged the Corps of Engineers to use 10.5 feet above sea level as the minimum target for the Big Lake. Scientists have maintained schedule for the ecology of the lake ranges from a low of 12 feet at the start of the wet season to a high of 15 feet at the start of the dry season.

On April 15, the corps reported the RECOVER Lake Okeechobee Stage Performance Measure had been approved, with scientists recommending the minimum target level for Lake O at 12 feet. The RECOVER team conducted scientific and technical evaluations and assessments for improving the ability of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) to restore, preserve and protect the South Florida ecosystem while providing for the region’s other water-related needs.

In an April 28 letter to U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, Temperince Morgan, executive director of the Nature Conservancy, asked for help from Congress to protect South Florida’s water supply.

“The citizens of our state and our country are experiencing an unprecedented level of stressors that will linger long after the immediate crisis we are now facing abates,” she wrote. “It is why we are writing to you now about potential long-term consequences of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) choice to inadequately protect water supply for South Florida’s growing economy and for nature, the source of that supply.

“Florida is undertaking one of the most comprehensive ecological restoration projects in our nation — the restoration of America’s Everglades as set forth in the (CERP). Lake Okeechobee, known as the ‘liquid heart’ of the Everglades, is a key source of water supply for the state -owned Everglades known as the Water Conservation Areas (WCAs). The WCAs in turn supply water for the communities of Florida’s lower east coast. The health of the natural system is therefore integrally linked to sufficient water supply for the millions of citizens of South Florida.

“Led by the USACE, the support for CERP was unprecedented — a coalition of stakeholders representing state agencies, environmental groups, businesses, agriculture and municipalities worked together to develop the projects and principles that were ultimately adopted in the Water Resources Development Act of 2000. One of the key principles adopted into CERP was the concept that as restoration occurred, careful consideration would be given to protecting water supply both for nature and people. This concept was memorialized in CERP as the Savings Clause.

“The USACE has consistently applied the Savings Clause requirements to CERP projects. The corps is now in the process of updating Lake Okeechobee operations. The USACE has determined the Savings Clause is not applicable to Lake Okeechobee operations, despite the fact that lake operations are a critical component of CERP implementation. Key CERP projects cannot function effectively without being linked to lake operations, including projects that are currently under construction and are being included in the Lake Okeechobee operations update. We believe that the USACE’s failure to apply the Savings Clause will have unintended consequences for both natural systems downstream of the lake and for lower east coast water supply — both of which rely on water from the lake, particularly under dry season and drought conditions. Moreover, we are concerned that the USACE’s failure to apply the Savings Clause will undermine the coalition that is critical for successful CERP implementation.

“We strongly believe that the USACE must follow the CERP requirements and apply the Savings Clause as it updates Lake Okeechobee operations. We are asking Congress to make its intent clear by amending existing statutory language about Lake Okeechobee operations.”

The writer asks Congress to amend Section 1106 of the Water Resources Development Act of 2018 (132 Stat. 3773) from “The secretary shall expedite completion of the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule to coincide with the completion of the Herbert Hoover Dike project, and may consider all relevant aspects of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan described in section 601 of the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 (114 Stat. 2680)” to “The secretary shall expedite completion of the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule to coincide with the completion of the Herbert Hoover Dike project, and shall incorporate all relevant aspects of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan described in section 601 of the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 (114 Stat. 2680), including the provisions of section 601 (h)(5) Savings Clause.”

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