Tucker: Lies about lake must stop

WEST PALM BEACH — South Florida Water Management District Governing Board member Brandon Tucker blasted Congressman Brian Mast’s efforts to drastically lower the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule at the board’s Feb. 14 meeting at district headquarters in West Palm Beach.

“Lowering the lake to 10.5 feet, in my opinion, is asinine,” he said.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/USACOE
Water from Lake Okeechobee is released to the Caloosahatchee River at the Moore Haven Locks. Water is released from the lake during the dry season to help the river, which would suffer from salt water intrusion without releases from Lake Okeechobee.

Rep. Mast, who is leading the charge to lower the lake, has lived in the Treasure Coast for two years and has lived in South Florida for four years, said Mr. Tucker. “What makes him qualified to advise our governor?” he asked. “This man has complete disregard for the truth about Lake Okeechobee and the communities it supports.”

Mr. Tucker shared a story that he said “has caused me a lot of sleepless nights since last summer.”

Mr. Tucker said as a Republican he has supported U.S. Rep. Mast and even voted for him.

But when Rep. Mast attended a Water Resources Analysis Coalition meeting and started grilling SFWMD Executive Director Ernie Marks about requirements to send water from the lake to permitted users, “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Where is he going with this? Are we now trying to take out farming by taking away their water entitlement?’”

He said at a Realtors Association meeting in August, he’d had a conversation with Rep. Mast and tried to encourage him to look at the science, listen to the experts and determine what is best for the lake. Mr. Tucker said the congressman replied, “Why do I care about the ecology of a lake that is 90 percent covered in algal blooms?”

“Why should we care about Lake Okeechobee? Lake Okeechobee is the liquid heart of the Everglades system. The health of Lake Okeechobee is critical for South Florida,” said Mr. Tucker.

Mr. Tucker said the “coup d’etat” of the SFWMD board was planned long before the November SFWMD meeting in which board members approved a lease agreement with Florida Crystals, ignoring Rep. Mast’s request that the vote be delayed. That vote has been cited as the reason Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the entire governing board to resign their volunteer positions.

He said last summer, as a fellow Republican, wanting to “be a friend and try to guide him through the process,” he invited Rep. Mast to lunch.

He said as he tried to explain some of the complicated environmental issues about the lake, he was cut off three times by the comment “I don’t want to hear that (blank).” He said Rep. Mast told him, “I don’t care if Lake Okeechobee is bone dry. When Ron (DeSantis) gets elected, there will not be anyone connected with agriculture on the SFWMD governing board.”

“I was thinking to myself, why does he feel this way? I believe it is because this board listened to the science to solve the issues,” he said. He said when the board sought solutions that did not require taking more land, “that made us the enemy to those who believe ‘buy the land’ is the only solution.”

He said Rep. Mast, along with the Everglades Foundation, is misleading people to think Lake Okeechobee is dead.

“Lake Okeechobee is the liquid heart of the Everglades,” he said. “For the Everglades and the estuaries to be healthy, Lake Okeechobee must be healthy. The lies about Lake Okeechobee must stop now,” he said. “We must work together in a selfless — not selfish — manner and execute a plan that benefits all.

“We are all to blame if we live, work and play in South Florida,” he continued. “We are all part of the problem in some form. Let us please listen to the science. Keep the politics, the politicians and the paid special interests out.”

Said SFWMD board member James Moran: “When I first came on this board eight years ago, I was told by some people there was a secret agenda by the environmental community and the (Everglades) Foundation. What they want to do is destroy the agriculture business in the Everglades Agricultural Area and go to ‘Plan 6’ to return it all to the river of grass.”

He said this plan completely disregards the people who live and work in the EAA, and the food that is produced there.

“That, in my opinion, is the reason why the foundation is pressing (for the resignation of the SFWMD board) over this lease deal,” he said. He said Senate Bill 10 calls for the land designated for the EAA reservoir to be leased for farming until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is ready to start construction of the reservoir. The Everglades Foundation’s representatives were in the room when the details of Senate Bill 10 were negotiated, he continued. But at their November meeting, when the SFWMD board approved the lease with Florida Crystals to continue leasing the land until construction starts, they acted “like their hair was on fire.”

“When the new board comes in, what you are going to hear is ‘Buy the land.’ They want to buy the land in the EAA one bite at a time.

“It’s not talked about, but I am talking about it,” he said. “I believe the real goal of the foundation and their minions is to destroy the agriculture business in the EAA. I think it is wrong. It does not serve the environment. It’s not the right thing to do,” Mr. Moran said.

“I hope the new administration does not let the foundation use them as tools to accomplish that end. You will know I am right if six months from now, you start hearing that drumbeat, ‘buy the land.’

“If that happens, we are going to end up in litigation until God knows when, and it is going to impede the work that we are supposed to be doing,” he said.

“I am not going to stop here,” said SFWMD board member Sam Accursio, whose term ends in March. “I am fighting for my grandkids to live in Florida, to fish in Florida.

“We have got to concentrate on our young people and the environment,” he said.

As to the “small group of people, a vile group of people sending nasty emails, I am deleting them,” he added.

“I have been through seven different governing board transitions,” said Mike Collins of the Water Resources Analysis Coalition. “The law that created this district created a certain kind of transition. It said the incoming governor would take control a year after he was elected.”

He said this system of staggered terms for the SFWMD governing board members ensured some continuity and provided new members with the experience of more experienced members.

“We’re entering a brave new world with consequences we don’t know,” he said. “There is an assumption out there about the inevitability of all of us moving along and Everglades restoration moving forward. That has not been the case historically. There are a lot of people out there with competing interests that I don’t see getting any press coverage because they don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to pump into a PR campaign.”

In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis asked the entire SFWMD governing board to resign.

SFWMD Governing Board members are unpaid volunteers. All of those on the board at the time Gov. DeSantis took office had been appointed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Melanie Peterson had already left the unpaid position before the governor called for the board to resign. She resigned effective Jan. 1, citing the need to devote more time to her business.

Dan O’Keefe and Carlos Diaz resigned in January. Jaime Weisinger and Rick Barber followed suit.

Mr. Tucker and Chair Federico Fernandez both resigned effective Feb. 15. The terms of Mr. Moran and Mr. Accursio end in March.

At the Feb. 14 meeting, SFWMD Ernie Marks also announced his resignation.

Lacking a quorum, the SFWMD board could not vote on any of the issues on the February agenda. Chauncey Goss, who was appointed by the governor and is listed as a board member on the SFWMD website, was not in attendance.

“I did not participate in today’s meeting because I have not yet been seated on the Governing Board,” Mr. Goss explained after the meeting. “As part of the nomination process, the Governor’s Office vets each potential nominee and performs background checks and reference checks prior to making a formal submission to the Senate. It is my understanding that my paperwork is being reviewed. This is understandable given it’s a new administration with many potential nominees who need review. I knew there was a chance my paperwork would not be complete prior to the meeting. When I found it was not, I knew I could not be sworn in or take place in any votes. There  was no reason for me to attend the meeting as a member of the audience since it was live-streamed and it’s a 6 hour round trip drive.”

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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