Science, not politics, should guide lake plan By Katrina Elsken Lake Okeechobee News

WEST PALM BEACH — Despite their different opinions on the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), those participating in the May 7 online meeting of the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force agreed on one thing: Science, not politics should determine the best plan for the Big O.

LOSOM, currently under development by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will be used to operate the lake when the repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike are complete in 2020.

Gene Duncan, representing the Miccosukee Tribe, was among those who think the “Savings Clause,” which was part of the 2000 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), should be considered in LOSOM development. The Savings Clause not only assures water supply for utilities, businesses and agriculture but also preserves water for the environment, he said. The Savings Clause guaranteed water users that they would not lose their existing (as of 2000) water supply due to Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) projects.

Larry Williams of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said FWS “does not take a particular position on the Savings Clause.” He said FWS knows water is important for all types of fish and wildlife. “That includes all of the different landscapes we are used to working in,” he said.

Congressman Brian Mast, who has pushed for more dry season releases from Lake Okeechobee and minimum lake level of 10.5 feet at the start of the wet season to reduce the need for discharges to coastal estuaries, said water supply needs are different now than they were in 2000. “Looking at it through the lens of the year 2000 does not seem like creative problem-solving,” he said.

“I think we have to weigh in on this to make sure Florida can have water supply for economical growth and jobs in the future,” said Ron Bergeron, a member of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board. “As we evaluate this, we should play a part in participating on how this water is shared across the board for 9 million people who live here in South Florida.”

“No one is advocating that agencies abandon the Savings Clause,” said Lisa Interlandi of the Everglades Law Center. “It doesn’t apply to anything other than CERP projects,” she said. “The Savings Clause does not preclude lake and water management decisions that were different than they were in 2000.”

“People are really worried about their water supply and for good reason,” said Nyla Pipes of the One Florida Foundation. She said dangerous messaging circulating online claims the only people asking for the Savings Clause are sugar farmers.

“That is not true,” she continued, pointing out that utility companies, cities, counties and the tribes are also concerned about water supply. Ms. Pipes said when the lake is below 12 feet, it can also drop the groundwater levels south of the lake. There seems to be a tendency to ignore the role of groundwater and freshwater head in Lake Okeechobee to keep area south of Lake O hydrated, she continued. “Stop with the misinformation, disinformation campaigns. CERP was all founded with spirit of cooperation. Our entire water supply is reliant on what we do with Lake Okeechobee.”

“There were a number of protections identified in CERP,” said Tommy Stroud of the Lake Worth Drainage District. “The Savings Clause protects the water users at the time CERP was authorized.” LOSOM is still under development, he noted. “It’s impossible to separate the operation of the lake from CERP.”

“I think this year is a perfect example,” the Miccosukee spokesman, Mr. Duncan, pointed out. “Lake Okeechobee was managed all year long at such an incredibly low level. Here were are at end of dry season and there is no water to send south. Last week we had a fire in Water Conservation Area 3A. The week before that, there was a fire in the (Everglades National) park. There is no freshwater going into Florida Bay.

“This year has been gross mismanagement,” he charged. “We have diverted the water to the benefit of one vocal minority, and the rest of the Everglades is suffering. This can’t go on.”

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