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Florida Senate bill seeks to control Lake Okeechobee water, brings fierce opposition from Gov. Ron DeSantis

Environmental groups fear more water from lake will be discharged into St. Lucie Estuary
Posted at 2:02 PM, Feb 10, 2022

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A bill filed in the Florida Senate has environmental groups and Gov. Ron DeSantis vehemently sounding off in opposition.

The surprise move by Republican senators has sparked anger across the state.

The measure, SB 2508, could discharge more water from Lake Okeechobee to the Treasure Coast and the St. Lucie Estuary.

Opponents believe if it is passed, less water would be directed south of the lake, which is a major part of Everglades restoration.

"This was sort of a sneak attack ambush," said Scott Wagner, vice-chair of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) Governing Board. "This ties our hands in terms of how we can recommend to our partner at Army Corps of Engineers, management of the lake."

Scott Wagner, vice-chair of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board
Scott Wagner explains why he believes the bill will have a negative impact on the management of Lake Okeechobee.

The bill is designed to give Lake Okeechobee water priority to agriculture. It is a last-minute maneuver that many say will undermine the new plan for managing water releases.

"The effect of that is to hold water back in the lake for the sugar industry and ultimately what that will lead to is toxic discharges down the estuaries and starve the Everglades of much-needed water during the dry season," Wagner said.

The Army Corps of Engineers worked last year on developing a new water release schedule from the lake, known as LOSOM.

Lake Okeechobee, view from Okeechobee County, June 18, 2021
Lake Okeechobee, view from Okeechobee County, June 18, 2021.

For numerous years, Lake Okeechobee water releases have been blamed for toxic blue-green algae blooms that coated the St. Lucie River and parts of the Caloosahatchee River.

Scientists also say the blooms have public health impacts, and an influx of freshwater with excess nutrients has hurt marine life and seagrass growth.

Many were certain that the new LOSOM plan would control the toxins impacting the Treasure Coast and parts of Palm Beach County.

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., said in a phone call to the SFWMD Governing Board that the new bill was sickening.

Eve Samples, the executive director of Friends of the Everglades, spoke out Thursday against SB 2508.

Eve Samples, Friends of the Everglades
Eve Samples says passage of the bill would be detrimental to the progress achieved to restore the Everglades.

"If it is approved, it would absolutely undercut much of the work that's been done for years to bring relief from toxic discharges," Samples said.

Chris Wittman with the Captains for Clean Water group shared the same sentiment.

"This bill would drastically threaten much of the progress that's been made in last five to six years," Wittman said.

DeSantis argues that the bill is being "rammed through the budget process" and is "leaving affected agencies in the dark."

Sen. President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said in a written statement that the bill "safeguards state taxpayer funds dedicated to clean water resources and protects state water rights from federal government intrusion."

Simpson contends that the bill "does not in any way" reverse or hinder Everglades restoration.

Below is the full statement the governor's office released Thursday regarding the bill:

I have been a champion for Everglades restoration and oppose any measure that derails progress on reducing harmful discharges and sending more water to the Everglades. Moreover, I reject any attempt to deprioritize the EAA Reservoir project south of Lake Okeechobee.

Rather than advancing legislation seeking to affect a major change in policy, SB 2508 is being rammed through the budget process, short-circuiting public engagement and leaving affected agencies in the dark.

The Florida Crystals Corporation released the following statement about the bill:

"The State of Florida has always maintained the right to manage its own water during dry periods when Lake Okeechobee's level drops low. Local water managers in South Florida rather than the federal government should retain control of decision making during time of crisis, like droughts, because they know how to balance the needs of their own communities, from drinking water supply to replenishing the environment to irrigating local crops."