The Florida Legislature is discussing whether to use political might to seize control of the management of Lake Okeechobee, and water reservoirs, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and turn control over to the South Florida Water Management District.
This proposal is a bad idea; it overlooks the history of the management of Lake Okeechobee, and related water bodies, in regards to the Clean Water Act.
First, Florida petitioned the federal government for the construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike and the Central and Southern Flood Control Project to provide flood relief and water supply sources for agricultural and urban development in southeastern Florida. This expensive effort, in conjunction with navigation projects for the Kissimmee, St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, resulted in a fair-weather water management system that is unable to adapt to increasingly common drought and flood conditions.
Second, Florida, through its agency now known as the South Florida Water Management District, managed water for the benefit of agriculture and urban water supplies, a reasonable effort until it abandoned any concept of environmental water supplies for estuaries or preserved wetland systems such as Everglades National Park. Additionally, public waters were allowed to be degraded, and were assisted in being degraded by the actions of public agencies that were supposed to be adhering to the provisions of the Clean Water Act. The deterioration reached such extremes that the federal government sued the state of Florida, and its agent, the South Florida Water Management District, to prevent further degradation and restore national resources. The lawsuit dragged on for years until Gov. Lawton Chiles symbolically surrendered the state’s sword, which resulted in a court-overseen and -monitored settlement agreement.
Third, as part of the partnership, the state and federal government agreed to a joint restoration effort task force, which in turn developed a restoration plan that was agreed to by both parties. The plan calls for cost-sharing and joint consultation in management.
This is where we are, or should be, today.
Unfortunately, in the years of bad management of Lake Okeechobee, water levels were allowed to reach heights for water supply purposes that led to deterioration of the Herbert Hoover Dike. As a result, the Army Corps of Engineers had to institute new regulation schedules to protect the dike’s primary purpose of flood prevention. Additionally, SFWMD practiced favoritism for water supply deliveries, while shunting flood waters to communities that were not normally in Lake Okeechobee’s flood zones. Only in these last few years have these adversely affected communities on the east and west sides of the lake been able to get the Corps of Engineers to consider their needs, often contrary to SFWMD recommendations. However, in fairness, SFWMD has been a responsive partner in many projects outside of the corps’ domain or interest.
The quality of the environment is key to the economies of east and west communities. Experience has demonstrated that without the creative tension of the partnership, both partners receiving input from affected parties, that one agency will be swayed to the interests of favored stakeholders/lobbyists, to the detriment of the other stakeholders — notably the silent stakeholder, nature. This is a situation that needs both the belt and the suspenders of state and federal government, because otherwise, our pants have kept falling down.
Trying to co-opt the federal role, in management, while expecting the federal dollars, indicates the lessons of the lawsuit have been forgotten. It is possible that some Florida interests think they have gotten all they want from the effort to date, and thus the rest can be abandoned.
We on the west coast know that our needs have not been addressed, except through temporary and discretionary relief, and that we need equitable attention from both partners. Eliminating one will only result in harm to our communities, our economies and our environments.
Daltry is president of the Caloosahatchee River Citizens Association (Riverwatch).