Several mayors from the Glades area and nearby regions are firing back against U.S. Rep. Brian Mast over the Congressman’s continued calls to lower Lake Okeechobee’s water levels.
“Over the past few years, we have watched with tremendous concern as you have politicized issues and advocated for policies that would harm our communities, all while ignoring real solutions to help Lake Okeechobee, the liquid heart of our state,” the letter to Mast reads.
“When you attack farmers and our communities, you are doing nothing to help the lake. Instead, you delay and distract everyone from making progress on these issues.”
Mast has consistently pushed for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to keep Lake O’s water levels on the low side in order to lessen the need for discharges, which can spread toxic blue-green algae. Late last month, Mast held a news conference in Pahokee after a bloom reached the city’s marina.
But Pahokee Mayor Keith Babb was among the signatories of Thursday’s letter, accusing Mast of acting out of concert with what Pahokee and nearby communities want.
“Time after time, you attack farmers, which are an integral part of our local economies,” the letter reads.
“You have resorted to spreading misinformation about Lake Okeechobee’s water quality, including your recent publicity stunt at the Pahokee Marina attempting to suggest that the isolated water quality issues there are representative of water quality on the entire lake. You have also attempted to speak for us, but have not ever attempted in good faith to meet with us.”
Florida Politics reached out to Mast’s office for a response to the letter but did not receive an immediate reply.
Officials can’t keep Lake O’s water levels too high permanently. Otherwise, a heavy storm could threaten to cause flooding in nearby communities and damage the Herbert Hoover Dike.
So when the lake’s levels rise due to an increase in precipitation, officials sometimes discharge water to keep the lake’s water levels manageable. That water can get into other waterways, however, and often carries toxic algae which grows inside of Lake Okeechobee.
Mast has pushed to keep the lake’s base water levels lower. He says that would reduce the threat of the water rising too high and lessen the need for discharges.
But low water levels can also cause problems. Farmers rely on the lake as a water source, as do several local municipalities, such as West Palm Beach. If the water levels are low and a dry spell hits, that supply chain can be cut.
Joining Babb on the letter are South Bay Mayor Joe Kyles, Clewiston Mayor Kristine Petersen, Okeechobee Mayor Dowling Watford, Moore Haven Mayor Bret Whidden and Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson.
Earlier this month, Mast joined Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference pressuring the Army Corps to better manage the lake’s water levels as the Corps formulates guidelines for the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM).
The mayors call that process “necessary to reach a balanced schedule that creates certainty for all of the Lake’s purposes, including our communities’ need for water from Lake Okeechobee.”
However, the mayors say that Mast’s “antagonistic rhetoric against everyone living around Lake Okeechobee and the west coast has raised serious doubts about your leadership and sincerity.”
Mast also pushed back against state Republicans this past Session, as lawmakers approved a plan to fund reservoir construction projects north of Lake O. Mast argued that money should continue going toward reservoirs south of the lake which can help lessen the effect from discharges. Those reservoirs are primarily designed to collect water that can serve as a resource for nearby communities, however.
The mayors criticized Mast for standing against the northern project funding and closed their letter with a request.
“We ask that you stop using Lake Okeechobee as a political prop for your news conferences and news releases,” the letter says. “Come meet with us before attempting to speak for us and our lake. We want to see Lake Okeechobee’s issues solved, its water cleaned and discharges stopped. Your antics and lack of leadership have no place in this process.”