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Politics

Brian Mast's 'Don't Release Dirty Lake Okeechobee Water' Likely a Tough Sell

June 9, 2018 - 6:00am
St. Lucie Lock and Dam in Martin County
St. Lucie Lock and Dam in Martin County

Glades residents are bristling over a letter Congressman Brian Mast sent Thursday to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) asking the Corps to halt current Lake Okeechobee discharges "until the water quality is deemed safe" or a strained Herbert Hoover Dike presents an imminent threat to life.

Community leaders Janet Taylor of Glades Lives Matter and Tammy Jackson-Moore of Guardians of the Glades jointly released a statement Friday condemning the congressman's attempt "to expose Glades communities to risk of dike failure."

“Congressman Mast’s request of the Army Corps is extremely dangerous and puts thousands of lives at risk," the statement reads. "The safety of the people living south of Lake Okeechobee in the Glades communities is non-negotiable. The political decision to risk our communities is reprehensible." 

The two Glades leaders said, "It was only last year that Hurricane Irma struck our area and a mandatory evacuation was ordered due to concerns over the Herbert Hoover Dike’s integrity. Until that project is complete, we cannot take any chances -- especially for Congressman Mast’s own political expediency -- of letting the dike fail."

Mast addressed his letter to R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army-Civil Works. "It is my understanding that the recent round of discharges from Lake Okeechobee, which began on June 1, 2018, were initiated prior to any determination of the quality of water being released," he wrote. "While water quality testing is currently ongoing on the state level, I cannot fathom why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would see fit to discharge massive amounts of water into our community without knowing, with certainty, whether the water was safe -- especially since there is no immediate risk of flooding or dike failure.

"... I request that the current discharges cease immediately until the water quality is deemed safe or an imminent threat to life exists."

Read the congressman's full letter here

Mast, who is running for reelection in competitive District 18, is vice chairman of the House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, and that's what scares residents who live in communities around the lake. CD 18 lies at the heart of the algae-threatened St. Lucie estuary.

"He has to make a lot of noise on a popular cause to get voters on the coast on his side," said retired FPL lineman Blake Ferron who lives in Belle Glade. "The congressman knows the Corps isn't going to test lake water before they open the gates. I mean, you can't stop and clean the water when the lake is over 12 feet and rising."

In fact, on June 1, the day lake releases resumed, Col. Jason Kirk, USACE Jacksonville District commander, was adamant there could be no delay. 

“Historic rain across the region since the middle of May has caused the lake to rise more than a foot,” Kirk said. “We have to be prepared for additional water that could result from a tropical system." 

He also said, "The lake today is above the stage when Irma struck in September, which eventually caused the water level to exceed 17 feet. A similar storm could take the lake to higher levels."

Randy Smith, spokesman for South Florida Water Management District, explains Lake Okeechobee reaches the danger zone at 15.5 feet. On June 1, the lake measured 14.08 feet; on Friday, June 8 it was 14.22 feet. 

"Long-range predictions indicate increasing probabilities of above-average precipitation for the rest of the wet season," Kirk said on June 1. "We must start aggressively managing the water level to create storage for additional rain in the coming wet season.”  

Residents in Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay nevertheless fear Mast could have some pull with the Corps. Part of what he does in Congress is work on legislation for infrastructure projects and the next Water Resources and Development Act, which provides money to water projects nationwide.

Taylor and Jackson-Moore say they want Mast to "think twice about playing politics with our lives and safety. Congressman Mast and his coastal neighbors benefit from flood protection," said Taylor and Jackson-Moore, "and yet he is trying to deny us the same protection. ...”

Meanwhile, SFWMD is taking action to address high water levels, using all available tools to move local rainfall, working with private partners to store water, working with federal and state partners on other possible actions moving forward.

"We understand the concerns of all our residents, including those who live along the northern estuaries affected by lake releases," said SFWMD Executive Director Ernie Marks. "Gov. Scott has made Herbert Hoover Dike rehabilitation a priority and successfully received $100 million from the Florida Legislature to expedite repairs of this federal project. There is an urgent need for the federal government to expedite the dike rehabilitation efforts and conduct a new Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule study."

See the video on this page showing SFWMD's Friday press conference on actions being taken to address high water levels.

 

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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