Group Joins Corps' Defense of EAA Reservoir

23 Sep 2022

SCCF and six partner organizations have joined forces to keep the sugar industry from succeeding with a lawsuit that threatens a key element of Everglades restoration and the future of water quality.
 
On Sept. 7, the Everglades Law Center filed a brief signed by SCCF and partners to support the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a lawsuit filed by three industrial sugar producers to stop the Corps from using the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA) Reservoir.
 
While there are a multitude of projects that contribute to the Comprehensive Everglades Recovery Plan (CERP), a lynchpin of the plan is the EAA A-2 Reservoir, which will provide a repository to store 240,000 acre-feet of water, much of it destined for the Everglades.
 
“Restoration of the Everglades is inextricably linked to the health of the Caloosahatchee River and estuary. The more water we can send south to where it is needed, the less risk we have of receiving damaging flows from Lake Okeechobee,” said Environmental Policy Director Matt DePaolis. “This means less nutrient pollution in our river, cleaner water in our estuaries, and a lowered risk of devastating algal blooms.”
 
While the EAA Reservoir is great news for the Everglades, the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, and all of South Florida, the sugar industry alleges that it poses a direct threat.
 
“Their complex and erroneous legal reasoning relies on a misinterpretation of the ‘water savings clause’ contained within the Water Resources Development Act,” explains DePaolis.
 
The sugar industry plaintiffs claim the reservoir will deprive them of water they feel they are owed from when water available to agricultural interests was reduced in 2008 after the adoption of the current Lake Okeechobee management plan, LORS08. 
 
“Yet, in the 14 years since the reduction — which was made to reduce stress on the Herbert Hoover Dike and to protect the communities surrounding Lake Okeechobee — the sugar industry only experienced water cutbacks in one year, when the harvest yield was still above average,” he adds. 
 
To counter the sugar industry’s lawsuit, SCCF joined with the Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce, The Florida Keys Fishing Guides Association, the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce, Captains for Clean Water, The Everglades Foundation, and Florida Bay Forever on an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief filed by the Everglades Law Center in support of the Army Corps. 
“We are asking for the court to find in favor of the Corps and the clear intent of the law. It was never the intent of legislature that sugar interests should be protected above all else, regardless of the cost to the rest of Florida and its valuable ecosystems,” said DePaolis.
 
The suit, which was originally filed by the sugar producers in August 2021, was strengthened last month when several other groups filed official support for the case. That’s when SCCF and partner organizations realized the need to file official support for the Army Corps' defense.
 
Sugar claims that the water savings clause serves as an insurance policy for water users against any unidentified future harm, while the law clearly states that this savings clause only applies to water diverted by projects in CERP. Their claim tries to falsely draw a connection between the water that was removed under LORS08 (not a CERP project) with the EAA Reservoir (a CERP project).  
 
To further explain how integral the EAA Reservoir and stormwater treatment area are to the future of water quality, SCCF Hydrological Modeler Paul Julian quantifies the difference the overall project will make. Its completion is projected to be in 2029.
 
“We should expect to see a 33% decrease in average annual total discharges to the Caloosahatchee and a 68% increase in average annual total discharges to the Everglades,” said Julian. “It goes beyond just more storage. It provides a means to build resilience into the Greater Everglades Ecosystem, instead of keeping the lake higher or pushing freshwater into the northern estuaries threatening the ecology of the estuaries, the water will be moved south to the Everglades.”
 
If the sugar industry’s interpretation is accepted by the court, it would signify that sugar water comes first, regardless of the damage to the environment, flood risk to communities that live around the lake, eradication of endangered species, and harm to fisheries, estuaries, and Floridians. 
 
“If adopted, this reading of the law would be directly counter to the goals of CERP and a misfortune for everyone in south Florida,” said DePaolis.  
 
For more information on the EAA Reservoir and the lawsuit, please click here for the extensive writeup done by our partners at Captains for Clean Water.