Mast Urges Army Corps Not To Discharge From Lake Okeechobee To St. Lucie Estuary
Mast Also Calls on Senate to Immediately Vote on His Legislation To Reduce Discharges to St. Lucie
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Following a statement by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Colonel Andrew Kelly that Lake Okeechobee discharges to the St. Lucie River were likely, U.S. Congressman Brian Mast (FL-18) today urged the Army Corps to find alternatives that would prevent discharges to the estuary. Additionally, Rep. Mast is calling on the Senate to immediately vote on his legislation, passed by the House of Representatives as part of the Water Resources Development Act, to force the Army Corps to reduce discharges to the St. Lucie.
So far this summer, there have not been discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie estuary because the water level on the Lake was at 11.03 feet at the beginning of the wet season instead of the 12.5 foot target prescribed by the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS). Had the Lake been a foot and a half higher, as prescribed by LORS, it is likely the estuaries would have been receiving high-volume discharges for most of the summer when algal blooms were at a peak level in Lake Okeechobee. At the same time, despite one of the driest Marches on record, every water user got every drop of water that they needed. Rep. Mast has been advocating for the use of operational flexibility to allow the lake to recess naturally during the dry season, while moving water south, rather than the status quo of keeping it artificially high
While the lower lake level advocated for by Rep. Mast spared the St. Lucie estuary from discharges over the summer, the Army Corps has now stated that—with the Lake at 15.19 feet—discharges to the estuaries are likely. As a result, Rep. Mast is urging the Army Corps to “exhaust all other possible options” to prevent discharges to the St. Lucie estuary.
The full letter is attached and below:
September 22, 2020
Colonel Andrew Kelly
Jacksonville District Commander
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
701 San Marco Boulevard
Jacksonville, FL 32207
Dear Colonel Kelly,
On September 18, 2020, and subsequently in a phone call to me on September 21, 2020, you stated that the Army Corps was likely to soon begin heavy-volume discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie River. I am writing to urge you to reconsider this choice.
At the outset, I want to acknowledge a truth: at the beginning of this year’s wet season, on May 15, 2020, Lake Okeechobee’s water level was 11.03 feet. Had the Lake been a foot and a half higher—as anticipated by the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS)—it is likely the estuaries would have been receiving high-volume discharges for most of the summer when algal blooms were at a peak level in Lake Okeechobee. In fact, we would have likely been in the range that LORS begins calling for discharges by July 4th had the lake started the wet season at 12.5 feet as prescribed by LORS. The lake beginning the wet season near 11 feet spared the estuaries from another lost summer. At the same time, despite one of the driest Marches on record, every water user got every drop of water that they needed. These are both strong positives that should not be forgotten.
With this acknowledgement out of the way, I do want to press you for continued operational flexibility to prevent discharges. Although the Army Corps frequently represents discharges to the estuaries as a foregone conclusion with no alternative, this is not the case. As you proved in 2019 (and to a lesser extent in 2020), better dry season management of Lake Okeechobee can mitigate the need for discharges. Moreover, even now, these discharges remain unnecessary.
First, the choice to begin discharges now is the direct result of your decision this winter to keep the lake levels artificially high. As you stated at the beginning of the dry season, “unlike last year, our focus this year will be on retaining water during the dry season.” Had you instead allowed the Lake to recess naturally, we may have had additional capacity now to prevent—or at least delay—the need for discharges.
Second, recognizing that hindsight is 20/20, I want to deal with the issue at hand. The Lake is currently at 15.19 feet. During the media call last Friday you stated that “there’s no risk of flooding to the population surrounding the lake right now;” however, as soon as discharges begin there will be a public health risk to the populations near the estuaries. Satellite imagery of Lake Okeechobee, as well as visible algae sightings at Port Mayaca, show there is active risk of algal blooms being discharged from Lake Okeechobee to the estuaries. This risk is intolerable. To be clear: by choosing to begin heavy-release discharges, you are prioritizing mitigating a hypothetical future risk over the very real and guaranteed public health risk created by discharges, which has been acknowledged by both the Environmental Protection Agency’s public health advisory and the Army Corps’ Congressional testimony. Under no circumstances should the federal government be choosing to poison Americans, and that is what high-volume, toxic algae-laden discharges amounts to.
To that end, prior to making the choice to discharge to the estuaries, I urge the Army Corps to exhaust all other possible options, including full utilization of dispersed water management projects and maximum flexibility to move additional water south above and beyond the measures that have already been implemented.
I recognize that there are no easy choices but to use a cliché: choosing to time and again use discharges to the estuaries as your emergency escape valve and expecting different results is the peak of insanity. The Army Corps must be creative and find a better way to protect the lives and health of Floridians.
Member of Congress