Trump ‘listened,’ but made no promises about Lake Okeechobee

CLEWISTON — Mayor Mali Gardner had taken an extra “Make Lake O Great Again” cap along with just in case she’d get a second to talk with the president on March 29 at Canal Point when he and a host of Florida’s representatives visited a Herbert Hoover Dike project site. She ended up settling for giving it to his son, Barron Trump, near the end of the gathering, when she realized she would not have a chance to give it to the Commander in Chief. The mayor and Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner were able, though, to ensure that President Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott left with information about the big lake. The mayor and commissioner arranged for gift bags prepared with the help of a local business and stuffed them with the information about the lake’s conditions and needs that comes from making a living on it, listing the un-ballyhooed facts about sources of pollution often ignored in coastal media reports and describing the individual livelihoods that Lake Okeechobee sustains in the sprawling area surrounding it.

President Trump (center), Gov. DeSantis (behind him) and U.S. Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio (from farthest right) listen to a briefing about the Lake Okeechobee Restoration Project from Army Corps of Engineers officials. At far left is Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Mali Gardner

“It was an amazing experience,” said Mayor Gardner. “Commissioner Turner and myself were able to share with him the facts we knew about Lake Okeechobee. And he asked a lot of questions to the Corps of Engineers’ people, to the governor and to the congressmen that were there. Every time someone gave him information, he asked more questions.” She said she found that encouraging and that her overall takeaway was positive.

“I’m confident that he is looking at this entire issue with the Herbert Hoover Dike and the (Comprehensive) Everglades Restoration Project, and he understands that there are a lot of issues at play. And I think that his time with us showed that he’s engaged in Lake Okeechobee and Everglades restoration work, as well as the importance of the hardening of the Herbert Hoover Dike.”

Did she get any inkling or hint of possible compromise down the road on the president’s 2020 budget numbers, which fall short of the requested allocation by $137 million?
“To me the real impression was that he understood that there’s some big issues at play and that getting this right for the future is important,” the mayor answered. “But he did not make any commitments, other than asking a lot of questions from the corps staff that was there.”

From left, U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Clewiston Mayor Mali Gardner, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, his wife, Jill Casey DeSantis, Commissioner Karson Turner and Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman. Mayor Gardner said open invitations were issued to all. Special to the Lake Okeechobee News.

The Clewiston mayor said the top brass from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers set the tone of the day in briefing Mr. Trump and the others about the importance of each of the many projects toward restoring the safety of the 1930s-era dike to today’s safety standards. Present were Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, deputy commanding general for civil and emergency operations from the USACE’s D.C. office; Col. Andrew Kelly, district engineer and commander of the USACE Jacksonville District; and Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, deputy commander for South Florida.

“The brief that the corps provided to the president, I think, gave him the understanding of how important it is to get the cutoff wall completed as soon as possible and finish up the existing projects, the C-43, the C-44, the raising of the Tamiami Trail,” continued Mayor Gardner.

“He did ask about water levels. Karson was telling him about how important the submerged vegetation was. And I was able to share with him that the concern is the amount of water that’s coming in on … from the north, the water quantity and the water quality. And from what we can see, the issues are not south of the lake. It begins north of Lake Okeechobee. He listened. He didn’t come back with any questions on that, but he just listened to what we had to say.”

Mayor Gardner explained that lots of information was included in the “Sweet Town” bags that were the idea of Pam Davis, owner of Seasons 3:1 LLC in downtown Clewiston, to make up and distribute as gifts to the elected officials. The art-and-curio shop proprietor described it in a social media post on Friday evening after their visit:

“My Sweet Town bags state, ‘Laguna de Espiritu Santo,’ which translates to ‘Lagoon of the Holy Spirit.’ It was one of the many names given to the lake back through the centuries. They also have a heart of birds over the lake. Today, I was able to send seven Sweet Town bags with those ‘Make Lake O Great Again’ hats courtesy AFLO (Anglers for Lake Okeechobee), as many other items were also sent from around our city directly into the hands of President Trump and all of Florida’s elected officials that came to our beloved Lake Okeechobee. My sister, Pat, helped put these together as we prayed over those attending this event. Honored to have a chance to show our officials we are a community with a huge heart for this area.”

Mayor Gardner said the bags show Lake Okeechobee inside the outline of Florida and “the lake is actually a heart with some birds flying over it.”

They included Chamber of Commerce publications, local newspapers and magazines, plus other swag; the Lake Okeechobee News and Okeechobee The Magazine among them.

They tried to include as much of an overview of the importance of finishing the lake projects as they could.

“I gave her the hats that I had gotten from Ramon (Iglesias, manager of the Martin Marina & Resort); she attached those to the bag, and I included in the president’s bag the March 20 paper that had Mary Ann (Martin’s comments in “Sugar Fest honoree challenges Florida’s new governor” and commentary “Sending Lake O water south isn’t the solution.”)

“We did say, ‘Too low is not good and too high is definitely not good for the lake.’ But I had included that in his bag, in addition to the governor’s bag. I also had provided … the Lake Okeechobee News article about the myths and the facts, and I also included the SFWMD info graphic about what happens at a 9 1/2-foot lake up to a 16- or 18-foot lake lower levels of the lake, in the governor’s bag.” Also in the package were several articles quoting Dr. Paul Gray, Audubon Florida’s science coordinator for the Lake Okeechobee watershed program.

Mayor Gardner went on: “So he’s absolutely got all the information he needs. And I did not know if I would have time to speak to either of them. (But) I was able to, and we invited the governor to come out for a visit, him and his wife, and Karson and I issued an open invitation for them to come see us. And I’m hoping that they’ll take us up on the offer. We sent a bag to the vice president, even though he wasn’t here; Senator Rubio, Senator Scott, Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart and the governor. I gave out a total of six bags. I did a note in each of the bags, and the president’s bag had an invitation to come out and see us because we were proud of our farming and fishing town.”

She said she personally invited Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife, Jill “Casey” (Black) DeSantis, to come to Clewiston anytime.

“I also, in the president’s bag, included an invitation for him to come play golf at our golf course since it’s a 1929 golf course … and also an invitation for him to come visit the Hammock Farms, which celebrated its 100th year this year. So we did a lot of invitin’ … and shared information. Each bag had the ‘Make Lake O Great Again’ hat on there,” said the mayor.

She said that the extra one, she held on to through the event and “did present it to his son who was there with him to invite them to come back out and see Lake Okeechobee.”

 

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