Proposal Could Tip the Balance in Lake Okeechobee
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - About 30 Florida conservation groups are telling Congress to reject a proposal that could lead to more water being kept in Lake Okeechobee during the dry season. Sugarcane and other farmer companies are pushing for what's known as the "Savings Clause" to be included in this year's Water Resources Development Act. It would force the lake to be managed at higher water levels that critics say are outdated.

After monitoring lake operations for years, Doug Gaston - Northern Everglades policy analyst with Audubon of Florida - says when levels rise above 12 feet to 16 feet or more, for too long, it could be disastrous.

"It kills the aquatic vegetation in the lake, which is very important to keeping the lake cleaner," says Gaston. "And because the Army Corps doesn't have a lot of options for lowering the lake quickly, they are forced to sending that water east and west."

Gaston adds those nutrient- and sediment-rich discharges contribute to the harmful algal blooms that damage estuary systems. Backers of the Savings Clause say more water allocations from the lake are important to supply farmers and the drinking-water needs of South Florida.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in the process of writing a new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, which determines the timing and quantity of water discharges. John Campbell is a public affairs officer with the Corps.

"Because the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual is being driven largely by public safety enhancements to the Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds the lake, we don't feel the Savings Clause applies in this case," says Campbell.

The clause was added to the Central Everglades Restoration Plan as a means to protect agriculture and other users' access to consistent water levels. Conservation groups claim the sugar industry and other farm interests are trying to benefit their own interests at the expense of others.

The Corps is hoping to have the new operating manual by 2022.

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