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U.S. Rep. Brian Mast Wants Lake Okeechobee Flushing to the St. Lucie Halted. For Good.

Miami Herald/Pedro Portal
Last summer, toxic algae blooms choked the Calooshatchee River, including this stretch near LaBelle.

In the war over water management, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast is tired of being the loser.

In a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this week, Mast, a Republican whose district stretches from Palm Beach to Fort Pierce, called current lake management a "total disaster." Water managers , he said, too often place greater importance on supplying water to the agricultural industry without considering the damage to Florida's coast when high water needs to be flushed from the lake to protect its aging dike.

"Under the false pretense of 'shared adversity,' the entire system was designed to benefit certain water users at the severe detriment of the east and west coasts," Mast wrote.

The letter was submitted to the Corps as part of an ongoing process to rewrite rules for managing the lake. The new rules should be in place by the time the $1.7 billion repair job on the 143-mile long dike is finished in 2022.

The existing rules were written in 2008 after the Corps determined the 1960s-era dike was in imminent danger of failing. Over the years, management rules have changed at least eight different times to respond to different conditions.

The rules call for the lake to be kept between about 12.5 feet in the wet season and 15.5 feet in the dry season, a balance intended to protect both water supplies and the fragile dike.

But in recent years, repeated discharges of the lake water, heavily polluted with phosphorus and nitrogen from farms and urban run-off to the north - plus pollution in the muddy bottom following years of draining sugar fields to the south - have helped trigger slimy algae blooms. Last year, the flushing coincided with a toxic saltwater red tide along the Gulf Coast that littered shores with dead sea life and closed down beaches.

Mast, as well as Gov. Ron DeSantis, have asked that lake levels be kept lower to avoid the polluted flushing. In his letter, Mast also called for an end to releases down the St. Lucie River, which historically was not connected to the lake, and increases releases to the Caloosahatchee, which tends to need more water during the dry season.

While the Corps has said water quality will not be considered in revising the rules, Mast said he wants human health impacts to be considered. In March, University of Miami researchers reported that toxins from algae were found in dolphins that died in Florida waters. The dolphins also showed signs of Alzheimer's-like brain disease.

At a weeklong conference attended by hundreds of scientists who study the Everglades in Broward, researchers warned that algae blooms are increasing and likely to get far worse on a warming planet.

"This is not unique to Florida, but I contend Florida is one of the most impacted states," said Florida Atlantic University Harbor Branch oceanographer Jim Sullivan.

Public comment on the new rules ended Monday. Additional workshops will be held to look at alternatives.