U.S. Rep. Brian Mast was the man of the hour during the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' two public meetings in Stuart Tuesday. The Republican congressman's impassioned comments were first -- and untimed -- at both sessions, convened by the Army to get public input on the Corps' new Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual, which will replace the Army's former Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS).
Many speakers, primarily from Martin County, acknowledged and directed their comments to the congressman, encouraging him, “Don't let up.”
Perhaps it wasn't necessary, or perhaps the congressman is beginning to hear the concerns of scientists, residents, farmers and other politicians who say their communities would be devastated by his proposal for lower lake levels, including the City of West Palm Beach, as well as the Glades communities south of the lake.
Former Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor, president of Glades Lives Matter, was among a dozen Glades residents wearing yellow tee-shirts proclaiming “#all lives matter.” She urged that both communities work together, a message she had carried to the Martin County Commission last week.
“We know when we're not at the table,” she said, “we're on the menu.”
The congressman has called for a permanent lowering of Lake Okeechobee water levels during the dry season. Although he did not mention that idea specifically during his comments, wild applause followed this: “We are asking in this process that we not be left out as we were before,” he said, “... that human health and safety not be a subhead to flood control.”
Col. Andrew “Drew” Kelly, the Corps' commander for Florida, told the overflow afternoon crowd that the new operating manual is not merely an update to the LORS, which only regulated lake depth to prevent a breach of the dike, but will take a holistic approach to managing the entire Okeechobee watershed, from the Chain of Lakes at the north to Florida Bay at the south and encompassing the rivers both east and west of the Lake with public health and safety as their top priority.
Kelly spent the hour prior to the 1 p.m. start of the first session introducing himself to attendees, “Hi, I'm Drew,” and fielding their questions.
“I know there's a lot of passion, a lot of interest in what we're doing” he said during his opening. “We want to hear your concerns ... We are listening.” And they did. The first session did not end until around 4:30 p.m., and the second, which began at 6, did not end until 9:30 p.m. due to the number of audience comments. He encouraged participants to submit written comments, too.
Eight public meetings have been scheduled, four had been held prior to the two in Martin County, for gathering comments, which will continue via mail and email through March 31. In May and August this year, planning workshops geared to specific stakeholders will be conducted, followed by additional workshops as the plan is developed. The new manual's draft will be presented to the pubic for final feedback in April or May 2022, with the final report issued in September 2022 to coincide with completion of the repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike.
In addition to a stronger dike around Lake Okeechobee, Corps engineers will include the completion of the C-44 and C-43 reservoirs, and other Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan projects, which will impact the control of water flow in and around the watershed; however, no new infrastructure or water quality improvements will be proposed beyond what has already been authorized by Congress, according to Project Manager Tim Gysan, who listed these questions to guide comments:
What issues are important to you?
What study outcomes do you want?
How would you measure success?
He also cautioned, “Different interests are not always mutual.”
The toxicity of blue-green algae was the primary concern of Martin County residents, which tests have shown also enter the air during blooms, as well as the water. They have been linked to liver disease and neurological disorders, although more research is needed to determine safe levels of human exposure and if toxins are present in the flesh of freshwater fish during blooms.
Stuart City Commissioner Mike Meier summed up the essence of most Martin County comments: “Discharges harm our health. We want zero discharges.”
His fellow commissioner, Kelli Glass-Leighton, asked a series of questions, including one not often asked aloud: “Is the health of those living on the east and west coasts as important as the safety of those living south of the lake?”
One resident asked why no one was “pointing to Mickey Mouse, since 95 percent of the water in Lake Okeechobee comes from the north” as the result of a straightened Kissimmee River. And others blamed agriculture and Big Sugar for “hoarding water for irrigation,” which causes the St. Lucie River to “bear the brunt of others' prosperity.”
City officials from both West Palm Beach and Pahokee countered that lowering the lake by two feet would throw their communities “into a permanent drought” and destroy the ecology and economy of the lake region.
“We have spent millions to protect Grassy Waters, the last remnants of the Everglades (in Palm Beach County),” said West Palm Beach Commissioner Paula Ryan. “We are right in the middle of this ... human health and safety includes fresh drinking water. We need to come together and demand solutions that benefit all.”
Barbara Clowdus is editor and publisher of Martin County Currents.