U.S. Rep. Brian Mast’s choice for a water management plan at Lake Okeechobee is now that of the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Army Corps this week reviewed five plans for an update to the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual. On Monday, the corps announced Balanced Alternative CC as its preliminary preferred alternative.
That was welcome news to Mast, a Stuart Republican and long-time critic of current Army Corps practices with the lake.
“Today is the outcome we’ve been working towards for years, but it’s far from a checkered flag, and we can’t let our foot off the gas,” Mast said. “Optimization can’t be used as code for ‘bait and switch.’ The east coast has made compromise after compromise, and we will not accept more discharges that harm our communities while we receive no benefits.”
The discharges of water from the lake, which ensure homes and agricultural land around the Lake do not become flooded, often end up accompanied with blue-green algal blooms. Mast’s district includes communities abutting the St. Lucie River, and he has said his constituents have lived under toxic conditions. He recently brought a jar of lake water to a House hearing and began to open it but faced objection from colleagues in the room.
Mast and U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, a Naples Republican who represents communities along the Caloosahatchee River, both came out publicly for Plan CC, which limits all regulatory releases to St. Lucie and most to the Caloosahatchee except during dry seasons.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has made water quality and Everglades restoration policy priorities, has called for similar limits on discharges, but never endorsed a particular plan.
“The Governor has not taken a formal position on any of the proposed management plans for Lake Okeechobee, but LOSOM plan ‘CC’ would be most aligned with the priorities he articulated in the letter he sent to the Army Corps of Engineers in May,” said DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw. “Under plan CC, water flowing south to the Everglades would more than double during the dry season and more than triple on an annual basis. Further, optimization is expected in the LOSOM process.”
But the proposal certainly has detractors. U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, has warned against radically changing the discharge schedule.
“I write to you concerned about politicizing the process that puts at risk proper management of Lake Okeechobee,” Steube said in a letter.
“Specifically, I strongly urge the Army Corps of Engineers to reject calls to drastically lower the level of water in Lake Okeechobee or to develop a regulation schedule that does not fully implement the authorized purposes of the federal project. I further urge the Corps to emphasize the science-based nature of its decisions that will ensure the Lake is managed to benefit the Lakeside communities and all of South Florida.”
The Congressman did not immediately comment on the choice of the Army Corps, with staffers saying they need time to review the final language of any plan, but maintaining concern about any plan that could threaten lakeside and agriculture communities.
The Florida Department of Agriculture, under Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, has not endorsed a specific plan, officials said, and has provided technical analyses of all plans.
“From the start of this process, and throughout the passionate discussions of these plans, it’s abundantly clear that major modifications will be needed to address the many concerns of all communities as we continue working to preserve our water resources for generations to come,” Fried said following the Army Corps decision. “During the months ahead, we will remain focused on addressing the concerns of environmentalists and other stakeholders, helping craft a solution that meets Florida’s environmental and public needs in good faith and in compliance with the law.”
Some environmental groups expressed dismay analyses have not been more critical of Plan BB, which sough to ensure water levels for agriculture, but which Mast dismissed as a plan drafted by sugar interests.
Mast has also called for portions of another plan, Balanced Alternative AA, to still be incorporated into any final plan. That plan sends more water south to the Everglades during the dry seasons.