By: Barbara Clowdus, Sunshine State News
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.”
Mast had met the previous Saturday with several dozen residents to prepare them for the Army Corps' public sessions, encouraging them to ask for “zero discharges,” according to one attendee. Indeed, it was the mantra and theme of most comments and signs dotting the audience, which flowed into the lobby and two additional rooms -- but it didn't come from Mast himself.
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…