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Guest Commentary: Lake Okeechobee: The water war continues
June 24, 2020

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After many years of work by clean water advocates and with the leadership of Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida has finally adopted a balanced approach to water policy that gives all stakeholders input.

That's as it should be. Florida's economy is diverse, and water is a critically important component in some of its biggest sectors. Agriculture, tourism, sport fishing and real estate all depend on water to flourish, not to mention the Everglades and the day-to-day water needs of more than 8 million people.

A recent federal proposal, however, would destroy Florida's delicate water policy balance. It would also do severe damage to southwest Florida's economy and our public health.

A bill by Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-FL-20th) would link a 20-year-old "savings clause" provision of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) to the Army Corps of Engineers' Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM).

This linkage was never intended and would severely limit the Army Corps' authority to regulate the dispersal of Lake Okeechobee water.

The 2018 legislation that established LOSOM specifically left out the "savings clause" language, and for good reason: it is ludicrous to apply 20-year-old constraints that directly contradict a balanced approach to water management that already exists.

For its part, the Army Corps has consistently stated that its regulation schedule for Lake Okeechobee does not trigger the savings clause.

The Corps has repeatedly explained that the savings clause was intended only to apply to "restoration" projects under CERP - not routine operating decisions concerning the ongoing management of Lake Okeechobee.

Eight million Floridians and visitors depend on sound, balanced water management, but applying the savings clause to LOSOM would do just the opposite. Instead of fair and equitable use of shared water resources that reflect the needs of all users, Congressman Hastings would prioritize the water supply for large commercial users south of the lake.

Congressman Hastings' proposal mandates that the Army Corps keep lake water levels high enough in dry months to meet water allocations that were fixed in the last century. When summer rains come, the Corps' flood control managers will have no choice but to flush nutrient-laden water out of the lake and into the Caloosahatchee and Indian Rivers.

There, it will upset the delicate salinity levels of our estuaries, killing seagrasses, juvenile fish - and much of our economy. The choking green algae and red tide would become even more frequent events, and the toxic byproducts of these blooms would continue to wreak havoc on the health of those who venture within miles of the water.

As a State Representative, I have consistently fought for clean water and Everglades restoration. When the Everglades agricultural area (EAA) reservoir bill was introduced, I immediately stepped up amidst opposition to cosponsor this critically important project. On more than one occasion, I had to ask our Governor to declare a state of emergency when blue-green algae and red tide overtook our waterways.

I am stepping up to fight for clean water again. We must stop this devastating federal legislation.

Instead of inserting an outdated and inflexible mandate on water managers, let's continue to work collaboratively to accommodate all interests.

A balanced approach -- not a 20-year-old mandate is the best way to save southwest Florida for future generations.

- Heather Fitzenhagen represents Florida's 78th District in the Florida House of Representatives and is part of the Southwest Florida Legislative Delegation

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