Lake O level debate continues to rage online

CLEWISTON — U.S. Rep. Brian Mast has been receiving an “earful” from the public on social media recently about plans he’s been pushing to maintain Lake Okeechobee’s levels lower to eliminate summer releases to the east coast.

A few days after the Thursday, Feb. 14, meeting in West Palm Beach on a new plan for guiding the levels of Lake Okeechobee to best accommodate all, Nyla Pipes of the One Florida Foundation posted on social media a South Florida Water Management District graphic showing some of the effects that progressively lower levels have on the lake’s ecological rhythms. That sparked a wide-ranging debate about whether a lower lake would be good or bad for the many lake interests. Congressman Mast got drawn into the discussion, with many commentators piling on afterward with questions he either couldn’t answer, or declined to respond to.

At that SFWMD meeting regarding the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, which will replace the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule in 2022 (which calls for the lake to be kept in a range between 12.5 and 15.5 feet), Rep. Mast got a dressing-down from one of the now-former members of the SFWMD board. Brandon Tucker charged that his objective of lowering the lake to 10.5 feet before the onset of hurricane season was “asinine.”

In response to Ms. Pipe’s post on Monday, Feb. 18, of the SFWMD chart (excerpted at right), Congressman Mast said he knew the slide well, but drew attention to the “fine print on the top” stating the SFWMD’s and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ purposes in managing the lake’s levels.

“How do those goals supersede our community’s right to not have harmful freshwater discharges (from Lake O), not have toxic algae discharges, not have our environment, economy or health harmed? Is this a question of the greater good for you? And if so are you saying that is what grants the right to harm us with the current Lake O management practices?”

While Ms. Pipes wrote that she also favors ending most releases from Lake Okeechobee to preserve the health of the St. Lucie River and coastal estuaries, she also pointed out that lowering the lake to 10.5 feet before rainy season would require major discharges beginning nearly immediately.

Rep. Mast retorted, “Will you be asking the Corps to discharge no water through Port Mayaca ever again … To not use us as an outlet for Lake O water at all?”

Ms. Pipes answered: “Brian Mast, where do you want the water to go? I’d LOVE to be able to make that ask, but there must be somewhere for all that water to go. You’re against deep well injections, and all these Everglades restoration projects are many years out … plus they don’t stop the discharges completely, anyway … So, in order to make that ask, WHAT’S YOUR PLAN?”

There followed some three dozen replies from various other people aiming sharp inquiries, but there was not a peep more from Congressman Mast.

And on Thursday, Feb. 23, the USACE ordered massive releases both east and west from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, except that the westerly flow will be more than triple the volume and speed of those to the east.

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