Senate bill would guarantee farm irrigation water supply from Lake O

New legislation being heard Wednesday could guarantee agriculture gets the irrigation water it wants to siphon off Lake Okeechobee, even when the lake’s level begins to fall.

The bill the Senate Appropriations Committee filed Friday had South Florida environmentalists worried about myriad consequences, including:

  • Prioritizing farming over the health of the Everglades
  • Increasing discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers
  • Jeopardizing the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir’s funding and timetable.

Gov. Ron DeSantis last week called the EAA reservoir “the crown jewel” of Everglades restoration, designed to curb up to a combined 63% of Lake O discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

Something to watch:SFWMD wants more say when Lake Okeechobee level drops, but environmentalists are worried

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Critics claim the bill is the latest political effort to circumvent the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM) being written to determine when, where and how much lake water is discharged to the coastal estuaries for roughly the next decade.

They worry this new bill would, among other things:

  • Write into law the “preferential treatment” for agriculture when Lake O’s water level is low, requiring cutbacks for other water users before farmers
  • Prioritize water supply over reducing harmful discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers
  • “Handcuff” state water managers
  • Withhold EAA reservoir funding
  • Deprioritize the EAA reservoir by altering its original legislation to dilute funding by including funding for a combination of other projects

“It’s a classic Tallahassee drive-by, introduced halfway through the (legislative) session,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. “There’s no need for this legislation. What they’re attempting to do is reverse all the progress that’s been made to reverse toxic water heading to the St. Lucie and the Caloosahatchee rivers.”

The Everglades Foundation, headed by CEO Eric Eikenberg, hosted a boat tour aboard the Island Princess on the St.  Lucie River in honor of Everglades Day on Friday, April 7 in Stuart.  Representatives from Florida Oceanographic Society, Ocean Research and Conservation Association, River Kidz, the Martin County Board of Commissioners, The Ocean Foundation and the Florida House of Representatives attended.

Where is this bill coming from?

The bill was filed less than a month after the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) asked the Army Corps of Engineers for more say when Lake O’s level decreases, specifically to within 1½ feet of the threshold where the agency can mandate cutbacks on farm irrigation and municipal drinking water.

The SFWMD is “still evaluating the legislation” and wouldn’t provide further comment Tuesday, spokesperson Sean Cooley said in an email. But Jacqui-Thurlow Lippisch, a DeSantis-appointed SFWMD board member, said she’s “very concerned.”

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