Last week, the federal government declared a water shortage on the Colorado River, cutting off water to residents and businesses in Arizona and Nevada. Florida could face a similar fate if we’re not thoughtful about caring for and protecting our water resources. And that includes maintaining the state’s fundamental right to allocate our water resources to meet the needs of our citizens, our businesses and our environment.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is considering a misguided plan that will surrender Florida’s right to control its water supply in Lake Okeechobee. This irreversible action would jeopardize the sustainability of the freshwater supply for a major part of our state.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has selected its preliminary preferred plan for the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, or LOSOM. There are many flaws in this plan that deprive communities of water supply and impose harm on the environment. I’m most concerned that the proposed plan does not take advantage of the $1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money spent to rehabilitate the Herbert Hoover Dike, which should allow for a better schedule that holds more water in the lake, conserving water for the dry season while eliminating harmful and wasteful discharges of excess freshwater to our estuaries.
To exacerbate the problem, some advocates are requesting the Corps remove the zone above the water shortage line, known as Zone F, to allow the Corps to dictate even more wasteful releases of lake water during the dry season – putting our water supply in even greater jeopardy.
Generally, when the water in Lake Okeechobee is higher than Zone F, the Corps follows a schedule to discharge the water to provide flood protection and to maintain the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike, effectively preventing a disaster that would flood communities south of the lake.
When the water level in Lake Okeechobee is at Zone F, it has always been the state’s right and responsibility to allocate the water to permitted users that depend on it. Lake Okeechobee supplies water for drinking, home appliances, hospitals, condominiums, business needs, watering crops and more.
I believe that the state is best positioned to make these decisions for our residents, our businesses and the health of our environment. Florida is one of, if not the most, progressive state in the nation when it comes to caring for our water resources. We’ve developed a water supply and planning program that is based on sound science, and it measures outcomes and progress. We’ve also established rigorous rules to protect the ecology, wildlife and environment of the lake from damaging low lake levels.
If the Corps successfully eliminates or reduces Zone F, we can expect the federal government to violate the very rules our state has put in place to protect the health of Lake Okeechobee. The unnecessary discharges would be a complete waste of our precious water resources, impose harm on the lake’s sensitive ecosystem and deprive residents and businesses from needed water supply.
It is time for people to put their selfish interests aside. This is not a reason to pound chests. This is not a campaign to raise money from. This is about the future of Florida. We must make Florida our top priority.
We all want a healthy and abundant supply of water. That’s one thing that residents, visitors, businesses, farmers, anglers and environmental activists can all agree on. Throwing bombs will not accomplish that. Surrendering our state’s right to water will only harm our mission. We must work together to find balance.
With balance, we can protect the communities that surround the lake from disaster and flooding. We can meet the needs of the sensitive ecosystem within and around Lake Okeechobee. We can reduce harmful discharges that cause algal blooms to grow and thrive in our streams and rivers, and along our coastlines. We can provide adequate water supplies for the farmers who grow the food that nourishes our bodies. And we can meet the needs of our residents, visitors and businesses in the region.
Florida is blessed with abundant rain annually, and since there’s so much water, any water shortages will be government-made. I urge the Army Corps of Engineers to work with the South Florida Water Management District and stakeholders within the community to find balance for our state. A regulation schedule can and must be developed that is more protective of our coastal estuaries and Lake Okeechobee while meeting the water supply and flood protection needs of the region.
Florida does not have to suffer at the hands of the federal government like Arizona and Nevada will. For Florida, it’s not too late. We must make Florida our top priority, and that requires Florida maintaining control of its water supply and its future.
Ben Albritton is State Senator for District 26, which consists of DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Highlands, Okeechobee counties and parts of Charlotte, Lee, Polk counties.