Twenty years after Congress settled on a compromise that would help restore the Everglades while protecting the water needs of six million people in South Florida, Congressman Brian Mast and Everglades Foundation’s Shannon Estenoz are asking Congress to undo the deal.
Last week, amid an ongoing scandal surrounding embarrassing Facebook posts that have surfaced in his re-election bid, Mast appeared at the House Transportation Infrastructure Committee and continued his push to keep Lake Okeechobee artificially lower during winter and spring months to combat blue green algae blooms.
Mast was aided, through the help of a Zoom call, by the Everglades Foundation and Estenoz. The group has spearheaded efforts to keep the lake levels low to help reduce the need for discharges that foul waterways in coastal communities if the it gets too full, but the tradeoff is that a lower lake level chokes off water from tribal nations, farmers, utilities that supply power to the region, and to backup sources of drinking water for the millions of people living south of Lake Okeechobee.
In her testimony, Estenoz stated that her goal was “to more fairly and equitably use the infrastructure we have to distribute the benefits and the risks among the many competing water-related needs in the region.”
What she left unsaid, for political reasons, is that the Everglades Foundation is willing to risk it all – including water for all of South Florida – in order to reduce discharges into the estuaries. While that will satisfy homeowners in those areas, to the Everglades Foundation, those with water needs south of the lake just aren’t as high of a priority.
The collateral damage, should their lobbying efforts be successful, will occur in South Florida: more than 6 million people depend on Lake Okeechobee as a backup source for drinking water.
But the biggest irony is that the Florida Everglades itself depends on water from the lake, especially during the dry season.
At what point does the Everglades Foundation, the organization that pledges on its website “to restore and protect the Everglades,” change its name to better reflect that it is no longer fighting for the Everglades, but for the special interests of one region of Floridians over another, all under an ecological restoration banner that attracts celebrities and wealthy donors to their glitzy annual events.
Congress sought to prevent this exact scenario from playing out back in 2000, when it passed the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) of 2000. In that historic plan to restore the Everglades, Congress included the critical “savings clause” legislation with equal and balanced protections for all who depend on Lake Okeechobee as a source for water supply.
Here is what Congress ultimately agreed on:
Savings Clause.—(A) No Elimination or Transfer. – Until a new source of water supply of comparable quantity and quality as that available on the date of enactment of this Act is available to replace the water to be lost as a result of implementation of the Plan, the Secretary and the non-Federal sponsor shall not eliminate or transfer existing legal sources of water, including those for:
(i) An agricultural or urban water supply;
(ii) Allocation or entitlement to the Seminole Indian Tribe of Florida under section 7 or the Seminole Indian Land Claims Settlement Act of 1987 (25 U.S.C. 1772e);
(iii) The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida;
(iv) Water supply for Everglades National Park
(iv) Water supply for fish and wildlife.
The Everglades Foundation supported this agreement. In a statement enshrined forever in the Congressional Record, a letter signed by the late Everglades Foundation Director Thom Rumberger praised WRDA 2000, stating:
“This legislation can be a sound framework for future management of South Florida’s water resources and Congress should approve its orderly implementation as soon as possible. We consider this legislation as currently drafted to be a fair and balanced plan to restore the Everglades while meeting the water-related needs of the region. While there are other changes we all would have preferred, we believe the long and difficult process has produced a reasonable compromise.”
Twenty years later, we have farmers (including sugarcane farmers), urban populations, Native Americans, and the Florida Everglades on one side. On the other, it’s Brian Mast, Shannon Estenoz, and all of the obvious Paul Tudor Jones-funded “environmental” actors / activists / celebrities on the other. Congress did not pick favorites when it passed the savings clause protections in 2000, but Mast and Estenoz, through revisionist history and by downplaying impacts on South Florida, are asking Congress pick favorites today.
Whatever the Everglades Foundation’s true aim, it is clearly a higher priority than their stated mission of restoring the “River of Grass.”