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If you need to score points, why end the game?
At least two of our political candidates are using voters' legitimate concerns over water quality as pawns in their election game simply to score points with the electorate – regardless of the potential impact of their promises – showing that the election season can be even more dangerous to our waterways than hurricane season.
One of them, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, a Republican, went so far as to file legislation that could cause serious harm to Lake Okeechobee itself and to the Caloosahatchee River, if it's enacted. His Democratic opponent, Pam Keith, responded this month with her own campaign promise that, if fulfilled, could cost the state millions – that's you and me, Mr. and Ms. Taxpayer – and even threaten U.S. food security.
And here's the kicker: NEITHER candidate's grand plan will fix the actual cause of algal blooms in the St. Lucie River, which comes from polluted water flowing into the lake from the north.
Rep. Mast's legislation introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives would prohibit the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from discharging water from Lake Okeechobee into the C-44 canal when the water “exceeds the maximum concentration of microcystins recommended for recreational waters by the Environmental Protection Agency."
That's 8 parts per billion.
When microcystins eventually flow into the C-44 canal, they trigger massive algal blooms as they feed on excessive nutrients (pollution) in the St. Lucie River downstream. We've all seen it, and, yes, breathing or ingesting those toxins harms our health and is absolutely to be avoided.
So … Mast's “solution” is to just shut the locks at Port Mayaca, no matter how high Lake Okeechobee's water gets? My first reaction was, why would anyone with any actual knowledge of the Okeechobee watershed say this? Then I answered my own question:
Rep. Mast's ONLY objective is to score political points with voters, especially those who live near the St. Lucie River. He's ignoring these facts:
First, water enters Lake Okeechobee from the Kissimmee River at its northern rim at a rate five to six times faster than water can be discharged when ALL gates are wide open. When even one gate is closed, water levels can get too high for light to reach submerged aquatic vegetation that filters the water. We could lose this life-sustaining habitat for fish and wildlife and get a dead lake. High water could breach the lake's dike, flooding the communities surrounding it and threatening lives. This is not an exaggerated risk. It's real. Then there's also the Caloosahatchee River, which would get more water if the gate to the east was closed, transferring to Lee County even greater damage to that estuary by inviting massive blooms of both toxic algae and red tide. How's that for being a good neighbor?
Lake Okeechobee's surface is 730 square miles with algae commonly present during Florida's hot summer months. Rep. Mast's bill does not specify WHERE the water in that vast lake will be tested, how deep in the column the samples will be taken, or if one sample from ONE spot is sufficient to make an accurate judgment to close the gate at Port Mayaca.
Most importantly, his proposed legislation makes NO attempt to stem the significant flow of water coming INTO the lake from the north, which can be addressed ONLY by increasing storage, constructing ASR wells (aquifer and storage recovery wells) and estuary protection treatments to address the quantity and quality issues caused by nutrient-rich water from the Kissimmee that triggers algal blooms here. Study after study demonstrates this to be true, and it forms the heart of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP).
Frankly, just common sense tells you that stopping the water from coming into the lake will end the need to discharge water out of the lake.
Rep. Mast opposes LOWRP, he says, because his first priority is the Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir south of the lake, although retired Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Col. Jennifer Reynolds, who is now Director of Ecosystem Restoration and Capital Projects at the South Florida Water Management District says that funding for one project does NOT decrease funding for another. “There's no need for CERP projects to compete,” she said in a Lake Okeechobee News article. “We need ALL of them.”
What we don't need is Rep. Mast ignoring facts.
We also don't need the one-upmanship of Mast's opponent, Pam Keith. She proclaimed she would take land south of the lake through eminent domain, if elected.
Just TAKE it, she said.
Well, most of us know you don't “just take” anyone's land. You buy it at fair market value, and in the case of the EAA reservoir, the seller must be willing to sell the land to you in the first place. That's state law. Without a “willing seller,” you can count on being in court for years, spending millions in the process.
It makes NO sense to go that route when spending those millions would go so much farther if spent on a REAL solution. Obviously, that's neither Rep. Mast's or Ms. Keith's objective.
Ask yourself this: If the major water-quality issue of the past two generations was finally fixed, how would politicians wring enough dollars out of our pockets to finance campaigns or tally enough points to fill their political scorecard? My answer is, they wouldn't.
A community activist, Scott Watson owns businesses in Martin County, including the Indiantown Marina situated on the Okeechobee Waterway. He lives in Palm City and has served four years as the District 5 representative on the Martin County Local Planning Agency.