Is the Army Corps' COP a Chance to Get Our Priorities Straight?

The Army Corps wants to hear from you about developing water and drainage plans. Is this a chance to start talking about where health and human safety rank in South Florida’s water management system?

Water flowing under the Tamiami Trail's One-Mile Bridge

The Corps’ public comment request is for the Combined Operational Plan, which will set how its infrastructure moves water south into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. It includes the gates, pumps, and canals that send water under the Tamiami Trail and drain the Water Conservation Areas (WCAs) where rainfall and runoff from sugarcane fields flooded out wildlife during the past two years and forced officials to keep more water in Lake Okeechobee.

So the COP will affect lake levels, the risk that people living below the dike face a deadly breach, and the risk that toxic algae blooms are discharged to riverside communities.

But the Corps warns that COP, whatever it turns out to be, has to work within the 68-year-old Central and South Florida Plan, authorized by congress just after World War II. In other words, “Our hands are tied” by a federal decree that was handed down when:

  • The current extension of the Herbert Hoover Dike didn’t exist

  • Florida sugarcane south of the lake took up 1/10th of its current land, water, and drainage needs

  • soil subsidence hadn’t turned the flat EAA (created by that same federal decree) into today’s moonscape of non-draining bowls

  • medical science barely understood most cancers, ALS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and liver diseases--much less their links to toxic algae blooms fueled by agricultural runoff

  • Florida’s population was less than 3 million (vs. 20 million today) and communities on the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers were 1/20th their current populations--and most didn’t have telephones, or TVs, or cars

In January Sen. Bob Graham called for an update of these authorizations, but antiquated statutes are only part of the reason today’s management routinely puts people at risk. A bigger part is our accounting separately for the lake’s capacity for water supply and drainage from the watersheds to its north and south, and refusing to accurately measure how much water and drainage everyone in the system needs and gets. The danger of this uncoordinated management is exposed by events like Hurricane Irma.

Drainage is scarce in this system, and we already knew that heavy rain fills the lake faster than we can drain it. It would be common sense to prioritize dike safety during the summer and fall by keeping lake levels low and stopping unnatural inflows. That would also reduce the chances of discharging toxic algae and its associated health risks to riverside communities. But today’s management system isn’t governed by common sense.

Instead we allow a section of the federal Water Resource Development Act (2000) called the “savings clause” to prioritize the sugar industry’s drainage needs, letting them pump excess rainfall (anything over 1”) all summer long into the system south of the lake, and when that’s full, into the lake itself--the back-pumping that raised lake levels this year even as fears of dike failure dominated headlines.

Meanwhile the federal Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) isn't required to account for the savings clause’s influence on the system or to prevent the sugar industry’s back-pumping into a rising lake--it just tells the Corps when to flush it into the rivers. Asked last month how the industry could get away with this, SFWMD’s Ernie Marks replied honestly: They have a permit. 

Better, the sugar industry has--thanks to a disjointed, complicated, ancient collection of regulations--the highest priority in the system. That’s why no matter how catastrophic a year Florida Bay or the Everglades or the Caloosahatchee or the St. Lucie have, the sugar industry thrives--since 1980 the crop has never had a bad year. Meanwhile liver failure clusters pop up along the river, with neurological diseases and a host of serious illnesses that we’re only just beginning to trace back to toxic Lake Okeechobee discharges. And residents living in the shadow of the dam wait for the next storm and the next evacuation order.

It’s time to change the priorities in this system and place health and human safety above all else. It’s time to consider how much total drainage and water are available and manage it as a single, interconnected set of resources. (Could COP and LORS be combined, managing drainage and lake levels to prioritize the people in the system?)

What You Can Do

Please voice your support for these ideas and make them part of the public record by emailing the Corps’ Melissa Nasuti at melissa.a.nasuti@usace.army.mil by October 21st. Ask the Corps to prioritize Lake Okeechobee’s impact on the health and safety of glades residents and riverside communities as it plans COP.


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