On September 12, ELC submitted comments on behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and Florida Bay Forever regarding a draft Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) evaluating proposed changes to operations to the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual or “LOSOM.” Our comments identified the significant benefits the proposed changes would provide to the majority of the natural system in southern Florida and commended the United States Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) for an extensive public engagement process in developing the new operations.
Our comments also noted that although agricultural interests have suggested that their water supply demands may be underestimated by the model used to evaluate the new operations, some data suggest the opposite may be true. We emphasized that many of the operational limitations the Corps faces in managing Lake Okeechobee at lower levels (which would further benefit the Lake’s ecology) stem from the need to protect water quantities allocated in agricultural water supply permits. But data suggest these permits do not reflect actual water use and that agricultural water use and production has not been adversely affected when water shortage orders are imposed and implemented. Thus, we suggested that the Corps should consider evaluating actual agricultural water use as a water supply performance measure, and assess the impact of exceeding both permitted quantities and actual use as alternative performance measure thresholds for future operations plans.
In any case, we emphasized that final approved operational changes should ensure that environmental water needs are treated equally with water supply needs, i.e., water for the environment should not be cut off before water supply rationing is instituted.
The Corps will review comments submitted by the public in response to its draft EIS for LOSOM. The federal National Environmental Policy Act requires all major federal actions, like LOSOM, be the subject of an assessment of significant environmental impacts. To comply with NEPA, the Corps must respond to all public comments in its final EIS, which will then inform the Corps’ final “record of decision” on what the final revised operating plan will be.