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Politics

Revolt Against a Lower Lake Okeechobee Is Building in Palm Beach County

February 26, 2019 - 9:00am
The 2011 drought in Palm Beach County
The 2011 drought in Palm Beach County

The idea of a lower Lake Okeechobee has captured the attention of officials in West Palm Beach and a new activist group who fear the lake will turn into a mud hole and some 1 million people living in coastal Palm Beach County will choke in the next drought.

They remember the 2011 drought "where the lake dropped so low the city was forced to buy water from the county, public fountains were shut off ad a glass of water at a restaurant was a special request," writes The Palm Beach Post in a Monday evening story.

Flyers distributed in West Palm Beach over the weekend by a group calling itself the South Florida Water Coalition claim the county’s drinking water is “under attack” and that “Lake Okeechobee is being drained to dangerously low levels to please political special interests.”

In 2011 Lake O -- backup water supply for much of the eastern reaches of Palm Beach County -- fell to below 10 feet. That was too low for gravity to pull water south for irrigation and drinking.

West Palm Beach City Commissioner Paula Ryan told the Post she had nothing to do with the flyers but sympathized with their content. “I understand the importance of preserving boating and tourism, but we have to have this conversation with the understanding that the City of West Palm Beach relies on rainwater for our drinking water and if you drop the lake for one reason without considering the other, we are setting ourselves up for trouble,” she said.

The Post did talk to the coalition's founder, Democrat and environmentalist Ryan Rossi who ran unsuccessfully for the HD 89 seat last year. He told the newspaper the coalition is being paid for by “local residents who have decided to put some resources in our hands for the cause. ... I don’t think you fight a disaster by creating another disaster,” Rossi said.

The U.S Army Corps of Engineers, in the process of rewriting the rules for determining the optimum height of the lake, are conducting meetings statewide on the new levels, the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, also called LOSOM. The LOSOM rules are scheduled to go into effect in 2022.

Last August, in a meeting with the Army Corps of Engineers in Stuart City Hall, Brian Mast,  the District's Republican congressman, argued strongly for an 8-foot lake level to reduce the likelihood of discharges into the St. Lucie River and estuary.

Ernie Marks, South Florida Water Management District executive director, explained the consequences of lowering the lake so dramatically.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Brad Stewart, Congressman Mast's deputy chief of staff, claims the meeting report in The Okeechobee News, from which Mast's comments are taken, is incorrect. Says Stewart, the congressman "has never advocated for an 8-foot lake level, as your article states. In fact, he has advocated for a temporary reduction to 10.5 feet on May 15th of this year. Those trying to convince people that he is advocating for levels in the Water Shortage Management Band of LORS are trying to set up a strawman argument so they can then attack him for it. 10.5 feet on May 15th is in the beneficial use operational band under current law. In fact, it was Ernie Marks who stated emphatically that at 8 feet all water users from Lake Okeechobee would still receive their water allocations. The congressman has never advocated a position of bringing the lake down that low.")

The infrastructure needed to send more water south is planned, but not yet funded, Marks said. Such a move would impact the water supply not only south of the lake, but also for the lower east coast.

There's a high level of risk forcing the lake down to 9 feet, he warned. “There is no guarantee when the rain will fall." A drought would cause the lake to dip to 7 feet or lower, in which case SFWMD could not send lake water to any of its required users: No water availability for the environment, none to fight fires, none for the Seminole Tribal Lands. He said the water shortage would hurt residents and businesses and wildlife from Palm Beach County to the Florida Keys.

Marks also explained what a too-low lake level would do to drinking water, allowing saltwater intrusion.

“Underground, you have a freshwater lens and a saltwater lens,” he explained. “The saltwater lens is at risk to move. (Editor's note: In hydrology a lens is a convex layer of fresh groundwater that floats on top of denser saltwater.)

“Once that saltwater lens moves too far to the west, you lose your wellfields,” he said. When utilities lose their wellfields, they have to rely on reverse osmosis.

Currently, the South Florida Water Management District keeps the lake at an authorized regulatory range from 10.5 feet to 17.5 feet. But Mast fought with the South Florida Water Management District, asking board members during an October meeting to pledge to lower the lake to 10.5 feet by May 15. They did not.

"When ... you have 5.5 feet worth of water permitted for agriculture and then discharge toxic water to the east and west each summer, you are picking winners and losers,” an enraged Mast said.

After that, the rest of the story was set up: On Nov. 7 Ron DeSantis was elected governor, Mast was reelected to Congress and appointed to lead DeSantis' Transition Team on water and the environment. Three days after his inauguration, the governor called for the resignations of the entire Governing Board. Marks resigned shortly thereafter, probably not of his own volition.

Palm Beach County officials expect a lively evening Wednesday, when the Corps of Engineers conducts one of its informational meetings on LOSOM at 6 p.m. at the South Florida Water Management District headquarters in West Palm Beach. Marks is expected to attend, but his resignation will be effective less than a week after that.

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

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