South Florida is a major population center for Florida, a significant driver of the state’s economy, a tourism destination, the winter vegetable capital of the eastern seaboard and home to the Florida Everglades. Allowing all of these wonderful assets to flourish requires both a sufficient and reliable supply of water; and in South Florida our state and federal partners have a legal obligation to provide water for the millions of people as well as the fauna and flora calling this region home.
Rather than following existing federal law intended to protect all South Florida’s stakeholders dependent on water, the Army Corps has repeatedly chosen to ignore it, placing the livelihood of farmers like me and many other non-farming related industries and stakeholders in jeopardy. For this reason, I recently joined a group of other South Florida farmers in a lawsuit that calls upon the Corps to honor the water supply the law has promised South Floridians.
The lawsuit was filed because the corps used the temporary Lake Okeechobee schedule water numbers adopted in 2008 when there were dike safety concerns in its restoration project planning rather than the water numbers of the schedule in place in 2000 when the federal water protections were adopted by Congress and signed into law by the president. This was a time when the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) was passed, and water rights of many users (including farmers, utilities, and native American tribes) were specifically protected in the legislation as an incentive to get everyone on board with the overall goals of Everglades restoration.
In an effort to help others understand exactly what this lawsuit against the corps is all about, I thought it would be helpful to explain what it is not.
This lawsuit is not an attempt to influence the ongoing Lake Okeechobee Systems Operation Manual (LOSOM) planning process. Our concerns about the corps’ decision to not follow federal law predates the LOSOM planning process. In fact, as far back as 2007, the corps was warned by an attorney representing South Florida farmers that any future water projects must analyze the impact on water supply for all South Florida stakeholders. In the letter, the attorney wrote: “The pre-CERP (water level) baseline should be protected and restored for all uses.”
Additionally, the lawsuit is specifically targeted on the way the corps analyzed water supply levels for the Central Everglades Planning Project (CEPP), which does not include the Herbert Hoover Dike or future Lake Okeechobee schedules. The lawsuit was filed to ensure the corps follows existing federal law, which states: the “Federal sponsor shall not eliminate or transfer existing legal sources of water” for South Florida water users.
Some have also tried to say this lawsuit is an attempt to derail CERP projects that are underway, including the EAA Reservoir. Nothing could be further from the truth. Since CERP was passed in 2000, farmers have fully supported the completion of CERP projects and have even provided more than 120,000 acres of farmland south of Lake Okeechobee for the implementation of projects that are essential to fixing water problems plaguing our system—including the land for the EAA reservoir.
In 2000 when CERP was passed, the CEO of U.S. Sugar said, “We are proud to be part of this historic partnership.” Since that time, farmers have invested millions of their own dollars and implemented on-farm water clean-up programs that have significantly reduced phosphorus in water flowing south from their farms. To date, farmers have achieved a 55 percent average annual reduction in phosphorus – more than double the 25 percent required by law.
Over time, the state and federal governments have made commitments about water supply that they have every obligation to keep. The corps cannot be allowed to break faith with Florida and take our water. As a generational family farmer, I cannot continue growing food such as fresh vegetables and rice for millions of American families without reasonable certainty of having water available for our crops. That’s what we’re fighting for here -- to ensure protection for the water needs of everyone – including our urban neighbors, rural communities and our natural environment.