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Nancy Smith

Former Pahokee Mayor: 'Don't Let Lake 'O' Flood Us'

September 24, 2013 - 6:00pm

JP Sasser drove 400 miles from tiny Pahokee to Tallahassee for what he thought would be a 20-minute opportunity to address Sen Joe Negron's Select Committee on the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee Basin.

In the end, as the speaker list increased and Tuesday afternoon wound down, Sasser's 20 minutes was whittled to 10. Nevertheless, the four-term former mayor and lifelong resident of Pahokee -- population a whisker under 6,000 -- made what he called the "priority point" of his trip to the Florida capital:

"Don't forget about us," he told the panel.

Sasser's succinct, straightforward delivery from the unheard side of the water issue -- the story of perhaps the next victims of the Lake Okeechobee discharges -- had senators focused and on the edge of their seats.

"The people to the northeast and northwest think they can fix their rivers' problems by sending all the water south and drowning us out," he said. "We haven't had a seat at the table yet, and we think it's time we're included."

Sasser told the Senate panel the "sugar towns" south of Lake Okeechobee, economically disadvantaged as they are, number about 85,000 in population.

"We're lucky," he said wryly, talking about the effects of a Herbert Hoover Dike failure. "Pahokee is 14 feet above sea level. The water will only come up to our ankles."

He also attempted to correct the senators' impression of water quality in Lake Okeechobee. "I keep hearing it referred to as 'dirty water' or 'polluted water.' The lake is clean. Check with the scientists. We do our due diligence and our efforts are monitored to prove it. But the water coming down from the Kissimmee River isn't clean. So, every time the (U.S. Army) Corps discharges from the lake, it's like they're flushing a toilet and all the filth goes east or west."

He said he was proud of the Glades cities of Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay -- all have had complete-community sewer systems for years.

Said Sasser after the meeting, "I was pretty happy with the way it all went. Senator Negron took me back to his office for a talk, and I got to spend some time with Senators (Lizbeth) Benacquisto (R-Fort Myers) and (Maria) Sachs (D-Delray Beach). I know them both, but they didn't have to take their time with me. They just did."

He said, "The first thing Senator Negron did was to sit me down and assure me that nobody wants to flood Pahokee. I told him, 'Oh, yes, they do. They want all the lake water flowing south. Do that and we're done.'"

In fact, during the meeting, one Martin County citizen-speaker told Negron, R-Stuart, he thought the state should buy all available U.S. Sugar Corp. land to flow the whole of the Okeechobee excess south. Negron asked him how much that would cost -- the answer was $1.54 billion. The citizen suggested the state could always pay for it out of reserves. "All the reserves available, everything, is only about $3 billion," the senator replied, and that includes money for emergencies.

Negron had begun Tuesday's meeting with the announcement that he has set aside $1 million to restore critically damaged oyster beds in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

The South Florida Water Management District's Ernie Barnett told the committee that since Aug. 1, 10 billion gallons have been sent south to ease the flow of nutrient-polluted water east and west of the lake.

Negron thanked Gov. Rick Scott and House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, for approving $2.7 million to get water flowing more quickly. "It's made a real difference in increased pumping (into Everglades National Park)."

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423.

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