Mast urges Army Corps against prolonged Lake Okeechobee discharges

As the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) begins releasing water from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie Estuary ahead of the rainy season to keep water levels in Lake Okeechobee low, U.S. Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL) raised concerns about the impact the discharges will have on the delicate ecosystem of the estuary.

The congressman called on the Corps “to use every outlet available” to minimize the impact to the St. Lucie River and to end discharges as soon as possible, according to a Jan. 20 letter he sent to Col. James Booth, Jacksonville District Commander for the USACE.

“As I have emphasized every chance I get, any water flowing from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie River is unwanted,” Rep. Mast wrote. “Stopping flows east from Lake Okeechobee is imperative for the ecological, economic, and physical well-being of our community.” 

Rep. Mast urged the Corps to lower lake levels in the dry season by maximizing flexibility elsewhere in the system, including full utilization of dispersed water management projects and other structures south of the lake. Any level of discharge above zero cubic feet per second is ecologically damaging to the St. Lucie estuary, according to his letter.

“The only acceptable number of discharges to our community is zero,” wrote Rep. Mast. “Anything more than that harms our community.”

The USACE plan is to send roughly two billion cubic feet of fresh water into the brackish ecosystem of the St. Lucie each week for an unknown period of time, according to information provided by the lawmaker’s staff. The USACE decided that water wasn’t receding off of Lake Okeechobee fast enough following Hurricane Ian; the lake level is still resting around 16 feet higher than the Corps would like before the start of the wet season, press reports say.

But prolonged discharges into the St. Lucie River put the diverse plant and animal species there at risk, wrote Rep. Mast.

“I am hoping that these releases show a commitment from you and your team to protect the St. Lucie from even more devastating lake releases this summer,” Rep. Mast wrote to Booth. “We cannot get complacent this dry season, only to be caught flat-footed in the wet season and require additional releases after the St. Lucie has already taken billions of gallons of lake water.”

“To put it plainly,” he concluded, “if we are receiving releases now, releases this summer will be unacceptable. Every tool at your disposal should be used to prevent ecological disaster both now and as we get closer to June 1.”