When Congress enacted the Water Resources Development Act of 2000 (WRDA 2000) more than two decades ago, it authorized the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) and expressed its clear intention to protect the water supply and water-related needs of communities like ours while restoring America’s Everglades. In fact, the law clearly stated that the water supply for everyone living in the areas connected to Lake Okeechobee at the time would be maintained. WRDA 2000 directed federal agencies “to restore, preserve, and protect the South Florida ecosystem while providing for other water-related needs of the region, including water supply and flood protection.”
In the time since the law was passed with bipartisan support, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken steps that appear contrary to this principle by proposing an operations plan to manage Lake Okeechobee in a manner which decreases the region’s water supply that was protected by WRDA 2000. The Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), which is anticipated to be approved later this year, is intended to incorporate flexibility in Lake Okeechobee operations, while balancing the congressionally authorized project purposes for flood control and water supply, including agricultural, municipal, and environmental uses. However, the plan attempts to achieve most of these benefits without the water supply protections intended by Congress in WRDA 2000. This is significant because it has the potential to impact freshwater availability to the residents of our area as well as limit important agricultural irrigation. Furthermore, the potential reduction in water availability will decrease the region’s water management infrastructure’s capability to protect many water supply wellfields along the lower east coast of Florida from contamination associated with harmful saltwater intrusion.
In past years, we have seen what happens when we experience natural droughts. It isn’t pretty—and the impacts are not short-lived. Local fire departments struggle to get the water necessary for fighting fires, tall condominiums can lose water pressure, vegetation within golf courses and residential communities turn brown, community lakes recede, and farmers struggle to water their crops. All of these problems are likely to become more common if the federal government continues to erode our state’s water rights and manages water resources differently than what is intended by existing law.
The Lake Worth Drainage District manages water resources for approximately one-half of the population of Palm Beach County by providing water supply protection, flood control and water conservation. We understand the movement of water and recognize the benefits and risks to the region’s water resources associated with the management of Lake Okeechobee and restoration of the Everglades. We fully support the continuing efforts to restore this unique South Florida ecosystem. But this is best accomplished by ensuring all federal agencies follow the law passed in WRDA 2000, and that state water users are delivered the water they have been legally promised. Safeguarding the availability of clean fresh water is in the best interest of all Floridians.