Stuart, Fla. – The following is an excerpt from an op-ed written by U.S. Congressman Brian Mast (FL-18) and published by the News-Press today:

All on equal footing, every citizen of Florida should get every drop of water they need: for drinking, for irrigating crops or for anything else. No single company’s profit should be prioritized over drinking and irrigation water for millions. Likewise, we must prevent harmful discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries, as well as ensure the Everglades, Florida Bay and the Caloosahatchee get the beneficial flows they need to survive. In short, public use should be prioritized over private profits.

If that seems reasonable, you may be asking: what’s the problem? The problem is that U.S. Sugar wants your water — every other piece of the system be damned — and they’ve enlisted Congress to steal it for them. Using the coronavirus pandemic as cover, they are hoping nobody will notice that they’ve seized this moment to try again to hijack Florida’s water for their own profit. If they succeed, it will mean more discharges from Lake Okeechobee, more toxic algal blooms in our estuaries and less clean water for the Everglades. No Floridian should accept this.

So, how are they planning to do this?

First, U.S. Sugar sued the Army Corps to say that Lake Okeechobee cannot come one drop lower, even if it protects the lives and homes of people living around the lake, if it means that there is even a miniscule chance that it might negatively impact their access to water at some unspecified time in the future.

Next, as you may recall, several months ago we uncovered that U.S. Sugar had planted their paid lobbyists on the team responsible for developing the new regulation schedule. Thankfully, you all spoke up and convinced Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried— who initially denied she even appointed them — to terminate their contracts and remove them from the team. Using coronavirus as a distraction, these lobbyists have since snuck back onto the team to continue their manipulation of Florida’s waterways.

Now, U.S. Sugar’s latest caper is to trick Congress into retroactively applying an unrelated, two-decade old statute — known as the CERP Savings Clause — to the new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, even though Congress never intended for the two to be linked together and the Army Corps has already stated that the CERP Savings Clause has no impact on the regulation schedule.

In fact, the CERP Savings Clause has never been a part of any Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule, and retroactively applying it would have devastating consequences for Everglades restoration, our estuaries and Florida’s drinking water supply. That’s because the provision locks in water allocations at a supply level determined last century — when there were roughly 5 million less people drinking water every day, before infrastructure improvements like raising the Tamiami Trail allowed additional water south into the Everglades, prior to taxpayer-funded forward pumps being installed on Lake Okeechobee so agricultural users could still get water out of the lake no matter what and before the EPA and the Army Corps acknowledged that the algal blooms being discharged from Lake Okeechobee are regularly too toxic for human contact.

Facts be damned, U.S. Sugar’s primary goal for their latest water heist is clear: to reserve Florida’s water for themselves alone. Instead of looking at Florida’s needs today — based on science, population and public health — U.S. Sugar wants to lock in the water supply numbers from over two decades ago. To them, it does not matter if that prevents water from reaching your home, the Everglades, Florida Bay or wherever else it is needed, and to them, it also does not matter if it causes toxic discharges to Florida’s beaches and coasts.

The bottom line is that what is best for U.S. Sugar is not what is best for Florida.

In fact, we have two decades worth of data that shows a clear pattern: U.S. Sugar gets all the water they need, plus billions of gallons extra put in storage just in case, and everybody else gets a half-hearted apology from the Army Corps. For example, during our lost summer in 2018, 859 billion gallons of water were permitted for agricultural use. When large amounts of this water went unused and hurricane season dumped its rains, the lake predictably rose to dangerous levels. As a result, 392 billion gallons of polluted water were discharged into our communities to prevent the Herbert Hoover Dike from failing. On average, our communities on the Treasure Coast expect this 3 out of every 4 years.

The good news is that the Army Corps saw right through U.S. Sugar’s latest ruse, and after a lengthy legal review with substantial opportunity for public comment, determined that the CERP Savings Clause does not apply to the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual.

That brings us to where we are today. Caught in the act and stumped by the law, U.S. Sugar has decided it’s time to change the law to benefit their bottom line. They’re hoping nobody will remember the masks we had to wear to protect ourselves from toxic algae as long as we’re still distracted wearing masks to protect ourselves from coronavirus.

To do so, U.S. Sugar has turned to the one organization that carries an even lower reputation for fair dealing than the Army Corps: the United States Congress. They’ve undertaken a massive lobbying effort to convince Congress to include their water heist in the water resources bill that is currently being drafted.

I’m determined to stop them.

Read the full guest column here.

More than 30 environmental groups across Florida are also fighting back against this lobbying effort currently underway in Congress to tie the hands of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as they write the next regulation schedule for Lake Okeechobee, which was authorized by Rep. Mast in 2018. The goal of this lobbying effort is to circumvent public comment and scrutiny in favor of locking in a failed water distribution scheme from the year 2000 that prioritized private profit over public water users.

Supporting groups include:

Audubon Florida: “The proposed language would significantly undermine restoration efforts currently underway and jeopardize billions of dollars of taxpayer money allocated by the federal government and the state of Florida for Everglades and ecosystem restoration that is critical to the long-term well-being of Floridians and the Sunshine State Economy. We urge you to reject it.”

The Everglades Foundation: “This language seriously jeopardizes continued progress toward managing toxic discharges from Lake Okeechobee and greater ecosystem restoration. Over its twenty-year history, the savings clause has been one of the biggest impediments to Everglades restoration. Instead of being the shield that it was intended to be, it has become a sword for the sugar industry to oppose projects or demand they be reconfigured to its benefit and the environment’s detriment. This language extends the sword beyond CERP projects to non-CERP projects and it should not be included in WRDA 2020 legislation. The Everglades Foundation is opposed to any efforts to do so.”

Friends of the Everglades: “Why would we go back to water management as it was in 2000 when we know so much more now about the health risks stemming from human exposure to cyanobacteria/blue-green algae. Retroactively applying the unrelated WRDA 2000 Savings Clause to LOSOM would require keeping Lake Okeechobee water levels too high during the dry months — which, history tells us, results in toxic discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries during the rainy months —and would deprive the Everglades and Florida Bay of much-needed water when they need it most.”

Everglades Trust: “To be clear, this is an attempt to guarantee the sugar industry a level of service that no other water user in the country is given—to the detriment of everyone and everything else. Agreeing to this new language would all but guarantee a certain death to the Everglades and three nationally-important estuaries, taking Florida’s economy and future with them.”