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Sugar Growers Sue To Stop Army Corps From Using Everglades Reservoir

South Florida Water Management District
The South Florida Water Management District plans to complete construction of a 6,500-acre treatment marsh in 2023 to clean water from the Everglades Reservoir. In June, workers set off blasts to excavate the marsh. Sugar growers sued this week, asking a federal judge to order the marsh and reservoir to undergo a new environmental review.

Sugar growers on Thursday sued to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from using a massive Everglades reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee intended to help revive wilting marshes and Florida Bay.

In the lawsuit filed in federal court, U.S. Sugar argued the reservoir will violate a rule included in the federal law authorizing Everglades restoration in 2000. Known as the "savings clause," the rule required the Army Corps to maintain water supplies to farms and utilities as it worked to revive marshes and undo decades of damage from flood control.

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The lawsuit also argues that a stormwater treatment marsh attached to the reservoir — and expected to be completed first — will need lake water to operate during the dry season. The lawsuit argues that would have “a significant, unstudied effect on water supply and those entities that depend on it.”

Growers asked the court to send the project back to the Corps for a new environmental analysis.

The lawsuit is the latest skirmish in the ongoing battle to bring more water into marshes and Florida Bay after decades of flood control that helped sugar fields flourish.

In 2019, sugar growers sued the Corps when it lowered the lake to avoid flushing dirty water to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers. The discharges, loaded with nutrients from farm and stormwater run-off, can trigger toxic algae blooms. In recent months, as the Corps ironed out a new lake management plan, a consultant who represents sugar growers repeatedly raised concerns about water supplies.

The plan, now being finalized, will raise lake levels by more than a foot, to help preserve supplies. But after complaints by environmentalists, the Corps may alter dry season reserves to provide more water to marshes.

Jacksonville Commander Col. Andrew Kelly defended the Corps' work in a weekly briefing Friday, saying the agency will balance water supply for both the environment and farmers.

“We go through a very, very deliberate process, not only with our [environmental] analysis, but with all of the analysis it takes to figure out the best infrastructure to be put in the ground in the right place,” he said. “So we're pretty confident that the infrastructure plan that we have going forward is a good one.”

Kelly also said the new lake management plan would ensure sugar farmers’ water supply.

“We're committed to improving water supply,” he said, “and certainly holding on to the performance gains that we've made up to this point.”

Kelly would not speculate on potential delays if the court grants growers’ demand that neither the treatment marsh — being built by the state — nor the reservoir be used until a new environmental assessment is done. The 6,500-acre treatment marsh needed to clean water from the reservoir is expected to be completed by 2023. Kelly said the 10,500-acre reservoir will be done by 2028 or 2030.

“As the lawsuit progresses, we'll see how it works out. But as we go, we're continuing and committed to making Lake O water management the best we can,” he said. “And we are committed to continuing all of the infrastructure that we've got going with Everglades restoration.”

The lawsuit argues the Corps used a lower lake baseline, calculated after a new management plan was drafted in 2008 to protect the frail dike. Instead, sugar farmers say the Corps should have used a higher baseline that determined lake water distribution before the 2000 Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was approved.

The baseline was well known and widely reviewed as the project was being planned and before the Corps and South Florida Water Management District began awarding contracts for the project, said Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg.

The Corps approved a wetlands permit that allowed the district to start construction on the marsh more than a year ago. The district awarded its final contract for the $175 million marsh in February.

“The bottom line is this thing has been moving," said Eikenberg. "It’s passed Congress. The president signed it. People want this project and we can’t afford continued summers of algae on the St. Lucie, the Caloosahatchee, fires in the Everglades and fish kills in Florida Bay.”

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