Renew the Savings Clause: protect water supply

COVD-19 still wreaks havoc in Florida, but South Floridians are engaged in a battle for our health and safety on another front — water scarcity. While most residents do not worry about their water supply as long as they get water when they turn on their tap, it is not guaranteed. On Thursday, Sept. 24, a subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment held a Congressional hearing in Washington, D.C. on the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP) and water management in Florida. The hearing was held as lawmakers are considering the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).

U.S Rep. Brian Mast wants to pass legislation in the WRDA that would drastically alter Lake Okeechobee’s regulation schedule in an attempt to curb toxic algae blooms in our coastal estuaries. Mast’s proposal would direct the Army Corps of Engineers to drain Lake Okeechobee’s crucial water supply to unprecedented low depths during the dry season. This would be a major departure from the Savings Clause, the provision in the WRDA that has safeguarded South Florida’s water supply for 20 years.

The continued debate surrounding the management of our water and its impact on our health and safety is important to all of us. As these crucial conversations happen remotely from Washington, D.C., Tallahassee and our regional water management district, it is important to find solutions to environmental problems that benefit all citizens and communities, not just the one with the loudest political voice.

Originally enacted in 2000, CERP remains the primary vehicle for guaranteeing that our state’s greatest natural treasure remains viable for generations to come. CERP’s implementation was approved by the passage of federal legislation known as the Water Resources Development Act. This legislation was significant for a number of reasons. First, it provided baseline protections to South Florida’s water supply. Lawmakers in 2000 recognized the needs of water users in the area — most critically the more than 6 million residents in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Second, the passage of WRDA put politics aside and showed that it’s possible to do two big things at once — restore the Everglades while meeting all of the water-related needs of the region, including water supply and flood control.

Unfortunately, politics has disrupted both sensibility and science in 2020. Instead of uniting to do big things, it has left us divided on how to create a safer environmental future. But now is the worst possible time to ignore sound water management practices. Water is more essential than ever, not only for everyday living but for life-saving hygiene. It’s necessary for our recovering businesses and the viability of our drinking water supply.

Politicians like Brian Mast are good at creating simplified talking points to address complex issues, but they fail to understand larger consequences beyond the boundaries of their own districts. Mast has loudly proclaimed that water-users permit rights should end when they infringe on the health and safety of others. That sounds reasonable but is simply untrue and not supported by science. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that taking away the rights of certain permitted water users would create a health and safety emergency of its own. South Florida’s utilities (which provide drinking water), municipalities and tribal nations depend on water permits to ensure they have enough water to supply South Florida’s growing population. If their water permits are not honored, they run the risk of saltwater intrusion, which would corrupt our coastal wells used for drinking water, emergency management and more.

While these consequences are inconvenient truths that often escape the narrow focus of some, they remain real possibilities for the rest of us who live in communities along the coast.

There are countless considerations that must be made when managing water in South Florida, including algae blooms, which continue to pose a real threat to many coastal residents. There are numerous strategies that will effectively reduce harmful discharges to coastal estuaries and the occurrences of these blooms without compromising our region’s water supply. All of us depend on water for a variety of important reasons — reasons that are critical and equitable for a healthier environmental future.

Our lawmakers should find water management solutions that result in a better natural environment while protecting our equally important water supply. As the future of water is debated in 2020, let’s remember that while much has changed over the last two decades, the water rights of more than 6 million residents in South Florida have not.

Ryan A. Rossi is Director of the South Florida Water Coalition.

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