Sugar Producer Sues Army Corps Over Lake Water Levels

(CN) – The nation’s largest sugar cane producer filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over low water levels in Florida’s Lake Okeechobee, the main source of water for the company’s farming operations.

In a 26-page complaint filed Thursday in West Palm Beach federal court, U.S. Sugar alleges the Army Corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act by keeping the lake’s water levels too low.

Through a series of dikes and levees, the agency manages water levels in Lake Okeechobee to prevent flooding and ensure farmers and residents have enough water. The water levels are governed by 2008 regulations that sought to keep the lake between 12.5 and 15.5 feet high.

U.S. Sugar claims the Army Corps consistently kept water levels low without performing an environmental impact statement to assess the effect on wildlife, residents and farmers.

“Since November of 2018, the Corps has released unprecedented volumes of water from Lake Okeechobee, and as a result they’ve recently driven the lake into the water shortage band, which requires the South Florida Water Management District to implement water shortage policies, during the rainy season,” U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said in a statement.

An Army Corps spokeswoman would not comment directly on the lawsuit, but defended the agency’s management of Lake Okeechobee.

“The Corps of Engineers has managed the lake at lower levels during the first half of 2019 to improve the overall system ecology and reduce the probability of having to release water during the summer, when harmful algae might be present,” said Susan Jackson of the agency’s Jacksonville office.

Jackson said the Corps is currently developing an updated manual that will guide future water management decisions.

Lake Okeechobee, the largest in Florida, provides drinking water for some of the state’s most populous counties. Several sugar companies also rely on the lake to water their crops. Through tributaries and estuaries, water from Lake Okeechobee also flows into the Everglades.

For decades, the fight over water levels has pit industry, environmentalists, municipalities and the federal government against each other.

In June, three environmental groups also filed a federal lawsuit against the Army Corps for releasing too much water from the lake, albeit for different motives than U.S. Sugar.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Calusa Waterkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance say the water discharges by the agency are “killing countless marine species, harming human health, crippling local economies and violating U.S. laws enacted to protect the environment,” according to the complaint.

The discharged water, full of fertilizer run-off from the sugar cane farms, is blamed for the toxic blue-green algae that regularly appears in South Florida waterways.

A sugar company and environmental groups are strange bedfellows, as U.S. Sugar’s Sanchez acknowledges.

“It’s not often that farmers join these types of groups in litigation, but when an agency goes rogue and puts Lake Okeechobee and important water resources at risk, we agree the courts need to take control,” she said.

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