There's a new battle in the ongoing fight over Lake Okeechobee's water level.
Over 30 Florida environmental groups have signed letters urging Congress to not "turn back the clock 20 years" by keeping more water in the lake during the dry season, essentially creating a reservoir for sugar farmers to irrigate their fields.
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast issued a news release Wednesday saying he'll continue to fight for lower lake levels so there's more room to store summer rains and less chance of having to discharges excess water to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.
U.S. Sugar Corp. is lobbying for a provision in the proposed 2020 water bill that would force the federal government to manage Lake O's level under the same higher-level rules as it did in 2000, according to Mast and the environmental groups. U.S. Sugar spokesperson Judy Sanchez has not responded to TCPalm's request for comment.
The provision is a so-called "savings clause," essentially a promise to protect the agricultural industry's water supply, written into the Central Everglades Restoration Plan. The provision seeks to include the savings clause in the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM), which determines the timing and quantity of discharges.
"Instead of being the shield that it was intended to be, [the savings clause] has become a sword for the sugar industry to oppose projects or demand they be reconfigured to its benefit and the environment’s detriment," the Everglades Foundation wrote.
The Everglades Trust said, "This is an attempt to guarantee the sugar industry a level of service that no other water user in the country is given — to the detriment of everyone and everything else," adding the provision would mean "a certain death to the Everglades and three nationally important estuaries, taking Florida’s economy and future with them."
U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings asked his House colleagues to support the provision in an April 28 email, according to Friends of the Everglades' letter. Congress approved the 2018 water bill without the provision, environmentalists noted.
Mast said the provision attempts to circumvent public comment and scrutiny.
Lake Okeechobee discharges
To prevent a dike breach when there's too much water in Lake O, the Army Corps of Engineers discharges the excess to coastal estuaries. The water is polluted with fertilizer that feeds algae blooms and can carry toxic blue-green algae that's dangerous to people, pets and wildlife. It's not good for the lake ecology either.
"High water events in 2003, 2004 and 2005 created serious problems in the lake, including the loss of 45,000 acres of nutrient absorbing marsh vegetation and threatening the Herbert Hoover Dike with failure — placing surrounding communities at risk of catastrophic flooding," according to Audubon. "Fisheries crashed and it took almost a decade for the black crappie population to recover. Hurricanes stirred up the mud bottom in the center of the lake, which raised phosphorus levels and degraded water quality."
The 2000 rules also ignored the freshwater needs of the Everglades, Florida Bay and the Caloosahatchee River during the dry season to prevent saltwater intrusion.
The Army Corps since has changed the way it manages the lake and is in the process of rewriting the LOSOM rules again, but it still recognizes five priorities: flood control, water supply, navigation, recreation and preservation of fish and wildlife resources.
"This is a terrible idea that would result in the prioritization of water supply for large industrial farms south of Lake Okeechobee over the health of residents living along toxic-algae plagued waterways," wrote Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades and TCPalm's former opinion editor. "It also would jeopardize long-term Everglades restoration goals."
This article originally appeared on Treasure Coast Newspapers: Mast, 30 Florida environmental groups oppose savings clause in Lake Okeechobee management plan