U.S. Rep. Brian Mast is going after a fellow Republican, state Senate President Wilton Simpson, after Simpson pushed to focus state funding on restoration projects north of Lake Okeechobee.
Mast — who represents parts of Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties in Florida’s southeast coast — has been an advocate for projects south of the lake. Those reservoir projects would help store water discharged from Lake Okeechobee, with the hope of capturing water containing harmful algal blooms before those blooms reach southern communities.
In Simpson’s letter late last week, the Pasco Republican said the state had gone far enough in funding that work and could turn its attention to areas north of the lake, which produces much of the pollution that causes those algal blooms to grow inside Lake O in the first place.
“[W]ith the $64 million appropriated by the Florida Legislature during the 2020 Legislative Session, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) now has all the funding needed to complete the Stormwater Treatment Area (STA) to accompany the reservoir,” Simpson wrote.
“The project can now move forward without additional funding from the State of Florida and our state resources can be redirected to projects north of Lake Okeechobee.”
Mast released a response video, where he worried such a move could cause delays in those southern projects.
“The point of this letter is very specific. It’s to undo something that there’s been extensive work done on,” Mast argued.
“It’s all about taking dollars from that EAA reservoir project — the dollars that have already been sent there to help prevent those toxic discharges that we have coming into our community — and move it to another project.”
Those reservoirs are primarily designed to collect water that can serve as a resource for nearby communities. But storing local runoff and Lake O discharges can also assist in slowing the spread of blue-green algae.
Simpson, earned much of his fortune in the farming industry, argued that Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP) north of the lake would be more effective in slowing algae spread. In his letter, Simpson pointed to statistics showing 92% of the phosphorus and 89% of the nitrogen entering Lake Okeechobee originates north of the lake.
Mast argued that rather than concentrate funds north of the lake, Simpson should work on legislation stopping those nutrients from entering the lake.
“Go out there and write a law that says, ‘You cannot have toxic water dumped into Lake Okeechobee that has 89% of the nitrogen and 92% of the phosphorus flowing in there.’ You’re the state Senate President,” Mast said.
“That is something that you can do, as you are acknowledging this problem, instead of pitting north versus south and trying to take dollars away from an incredible project, the southern storage reservoir project.”
The Congressman said he would work with Simpson on that bill.
The debate exemplifies the rift between officials within the state on various issues surrounding Lake Okeechobee pollution. As Mast and Simpson show, those disagreements don’t necessarily fall neatly along party lines.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has focused on those reservoir projects south of the lake during the first two years of his tenure. It remains to be seen whether Simpson’s stance will prompt a change in state funding priorities going forward.