U.S. Sugar Corp. vs. Army Corps: Who's right about operating Lake Okeechobee levels?

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STUART — The Army Corps of Engineers is "rolling the dice" with water South Florida depends on by lowering Lake Okeechobee, the U.S. Sugar Corp. says.

But for people along the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers facing the possibility of Lake O discharges and algae blooms, "every year is a roll of the dice," an environmental lawyer told Rivers Coalition members at a meeting Thursday. 

U.S. Sugar filed a lawsuit Aug. 1 in federal court claiming the Corps went "rogue" in lowering the lake below 11 feet in elevation this summer, violating its own regulations, breaking the National Environmental Policy Act and risking "man-made drought" as well as "permanent, harmful environmental effects."

The timing of the lawsuit, noted Lisa Interlandi, executive director of the Everglades Law Center, coincided with a brief period when the lake level dipped into what the Corps calls the "water shortage band."

"Immediately after that, the lake level skyrocketed," Interlandi said, adding if the Corps hadn't lowered the lake, "we'd be real worried about getting discharges right now."

On schedule

The Corps manages Lake O levels under guidelines approved in 2008 that try to keep the elevation between 12 feet, 6 inches and 15 feet, 6 inches, a range determined to best protect the lives, businesses and properties around the lake while providing water for farming, drinking and nature without risking a breach of the dike around the lake.

"Lake Okeechobee has an official schedule that was developed during a very public and very transparent process that involved members of almost every stakeholder group," Judy Sanchez, senior director of corporate communication and public affairs for U.S. Sugar, said in an email to TCPalm. "There is a problem when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers throws that due process out the window to dump water outside of that schedule."

The lawsuit, Sanchez said, simply asks the Corps to follow the law.

"(N)o one is asking to keep any higher levels in Lake Okeechobee than the schedule allows," she said. 

Sugar growers played a role in lowering the lake, Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart, said at Thursday's meeting: Water sent south to irrigate sugarcane fields dropped the lake elevation by about a foot.

"Sugar wants the lake to be managed for their best benefit, without regard to the safety of the dike, the health of the lake or the health of the estuaries," Paul Gray, an Audubon Florida scientist who's been studying Lake Okeechobee for decades, told TCPalm.

"No matter what the conditions, no matter how much other parts of the system suffer, every single year the sugar yield is as good or better than the year before," Interlandi said.

Corps spokesman John H. Campbell declined to comment on the lawsuit except to say agency officials believe "flexibility" in the operational guidelines allow lowering the lake and the analysis called for by the National Environmental Policy Act was completed when the guidelines were adopted.


Plants spreading

Besides preventing harmful discharges, lowering the lake also met the goal of spurring the growth of plants, known as submerged aquatic vegetation.

The area of plant life in the lake increased from 5,187 acres in 2018 to 21,200 acres as of Sept. 1, Lawrence Glenn, water resources director at the South Florida Water Management District, reported at the district board's September meeting.

"As it turned out, the lake went lower, the estuaries were spared and there was no harm to agriculture at all," Interlandi said of the Corps' action. "It sure seems like it was the right thing to do."


Dangerous precedent

Still, the Corps' action sets a dangerous precedent, Sanchez said.

"If the Corps can ignore their own process for managing Lake Okeechobee for one reason this year, then they can do it any year, for any other reason," she said. "That is a very dangerous precedent to set and the reason for our lawsuit."

Corps officials in July indicated they're working on a "planned deviation" from usual Lake O operations to allow the lake to drop lower than the usual guidelines "with the goal of reducing the risk to public health and safety associated with" harmful algae blooms.

The deviation has to be approved by Maj. Gen. Diana Holland, the Corps commanding general in Atlanta. There's no timeframe for when that will happen, Campbell said.

"The Corps isn't saying they'll lower the lake every year," Gray said. "They just want the flexibility to do it when necessary."