“Promises were meant to be kept,” the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida said in its lawsuit filed last week against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for building the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area project.
Farmers fear the reservoir project hailed by Everglades and Florida Bay restoration proponents will dry up their fields.
The sugar cooperative and its 42-member farmers claim the massive reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee and the adjacent stormwater filtration area that will benefit historically dried up marshes in the Southern Everglades and filter down to Florida Bay, while reducing harmful lake water releases to east and west coast estuaries, “violates their rights as water users” and “jeopardizes agricultural and urban water supplies.”
Eight million tons of sugar cane, sweet corn, watermelon, green bean, lettuce and orange growers depend on irrigation from the lake during months of low rainfall, or dry seasons.
The sugar cooperative filed the lawsuit because it claims the Army Corps failed to conduct a “Savings Clause” analysis as required by law. The clause requires the state to maintain water levels to nearby farms and utilities that existed before the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project was created 21 years ago, the lawsuit claims.
Sugar growers produce sugar cane-based food packaging and crops on or nearby approximately 70,000 acres where the South Florida Water Management District is responsible for constructing a 6,500-acre Stormwater Treatment Area in the wetlands as part of a joint project with the Corps.
The Corps has demonstrated a violation of the Federal Administrative Procedures Act as a result of the violation of the Water Resources Development Act 2000, the legal framework of which CERP and Central Everglades Planning Project were born, and also violates the National Environmental Policy Act by failing “to take a hard look at how the project would impact the environment, including agricultural and drinking water supplies,” according to the lawsuit.
Sugar farmers claim that the Army Corps utilized a baseline in designing the 23-foot deep, 240,000 acre-foot capacity reservoir and the 6,600-acre stormwater treatment area that grossly undercounts water available for agricultural, urban and other existing legal users since 2008, when the Army Corps lowered lake levels due to the failing Herbert Hoover Dike, which has since mostly been repaired.
Sugar growers have asked the court to send the project back to the Corps to evaluate the full range of operational scenarios now under consideration in accordance to the National Endangered Species Act.
“Construction on the EAA reservoir stormwater treatment area started in March 2020 and will be completed in November 2023,” said SFWMD spokesman Randy Smith. “The EAA reservoir being built by the Corps of Engineers is expected to be completed in eight years.”
It’s unclear at this time if the sugar corporations contest a new lake management plan on the horizon.
Last week, the Army Corps held a workshop of Iteration 3 of the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, which will provide guidelines in managing the outdoor plumbing system for the next decade.
As part of the LOSOM, the Army Corps intends to keep Lake O levels below 17 feet, which sugar farmers say is less than what is due to them based on the “Savings Clause.”
The Corps intends to implement the LOSOM by the end of 2022 after repairs to the dike are expected to be complete.
In separate but related lawsuits, the Okeelanta Corporation, a subsidiary of Florida Crystals, which manufactures raw and organic sugars, and U.S. Sugar Corp both filed materially similar lawsuits against the Corps.
Those suits also claim that previous state legislation has been violated.
In 1949, the state created the Central and Southern Florida Flood Control District, the predecessor to the South Florida Water Management District, to manage the Central and Southern Florida project in the Flood Control Act of 1948, which the lawsuit claims the SFWMD has violated.
“These lawsuits are yet another attempt by the sugar industry to wield control of water supply,” said Emma Haydocy, executive director of Florida Bay Forever. “It remains to be seen whether the lawsuits will delay construction of the actual reservoir, but the residents of the Florida Keys should accept nothing less than the current commitments by state and federal partners to build this critical infrastructure. Our communities cannot afford another event like the seagrass die-off of 2015.”
The $3.4 billion reservoir and stormwater treatment area will return water flow to historic levels and direction before drainage and storage systems were created in the 1940s, reduce the number of east and west discharges from the lake to thwart harmful algal blooms and send clean water south into the Everglades to ultimately lower damaging salinity levels in the Florida Bay.