Florida Congressman Brian Mast has been instrumental in moderating Lake Okeechobee levels and discharges by showing up uninvited and asking questions, he told Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce members during a virtual Power Hour meeting on July 1. He advised the 130 meeting attendees to do the same to keep water quality issues in the foreground even while the situation appears to have improved.
“I actually met Congressman Mast, he showed up uninvited to a press conference we were having in Tallahassee,” said Capt. Daniel Andrews, cofounder and executive director of Captains for Clean Water, which sponsored the meeting. “It’s pretty rare that you will get a politician, especially a congressman, that will just show up to show support on an issue…. I don’t think there’s been anyone else I’ve met in the last four years that’s been as hard of a fighter,” he added while introducing the speaker, referencing Mast’s career in the U.S. Army’s elite Joint Special Operations Command, which resulted in the loss of both legs in Afghanistan.
“One of the biggest things he’s fought for, we can already thank him for now… in addition to all the Everglades restoration stuff, is the way that we manage Lake Okeechobee, fighting to keep those lake levels lower during the dry season, so when it rains we don’t have discharges,” said Andrews. “He’s been by far the leader on that issue. Last year, we saw a significant change in our water quality, and in my opinion it was largely due to those efforts.”
The questions Mast started asking pertained first to the toxicity levels of water being released, which resulted in the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s release of standards and admission by the Army Corps of Engineers as to the high levels of toxicity being released into the Caloosahatchee River and the St. Lucie River, which flows into Mast’s district on the East Coast.
“Where are they going to draw the line for not allowing people to be poisoned?” asked Mast, who serves on the federal Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that addresses water quality issues. “’What are they going to do about that?’ and that is the question we need to be begging them.”
Mast also questioned why Lake O levels were allowed to rise so high each year when the results predictably mean the dumping of water into the rivers in summer when it’s most toxic. “Isn’t that negligent? Isn’t that naïve to allow that to happen year after year after year?” he asked. “Why let it go to that level? How low can you bring those levels of Lake Okeechobee and still give everybody the water supply they need?”
His committee supports the Water Resources Development Act currently before the federal legislature, which would regulate Lake O levels so that West Coast estuaries would still get the water it needs in winter and would send water south in the summer instead of discharging into the two rivers.
“We can’t allow others to get what they want and step on our communities to get it,” Mast said. “There’s a pretty balanced fight for and against this. We will be seeing it play out in next couple of weeks.”
Andrews, a fulltime fishing guide who grew up in this area, urged meeting attendees: “Don’t forget about our water quality when it looks good. It’s going to take all of us focusing on this 100 percent all the time from here on out.” He thanked the Chamber of Commerce for its leadership in bringing these issues to Washington and keeping them front and center. “This is what’s moving the needle right now.”
“One thing we tend to do is get complacent,” said John Lai, chamber president and chief executive officer. “We need to continue to keep our foot on the gas.” He thanked Rep. Mast and Captains for Clean Water for their collaboration on keeping the business community focused.
Captains for Clean Water, a grassroots nonprofit organization formed by Andrews and Chris Wittman in 2016, advocates for the elimination of harmful, large-scale Lake Okeechobee discharges into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie river estuaries by restoring the natural flow of the lake south into the Everglades and Florida Bay.
“I can’t emphasize that enough. The clean water is essential to businesses and businesses are essential to the fight,” said Andrews. “We need to continue this fight year in and out, regardless of what we’re seeing. It takes that continuous pressure.”
ABOUT SANIBEL & CAPTIVA ISLANDS CHAMBER OF COMMERCE
The Sanibel & Captiva Islands Chamber of Commerce is dedicated to promoting the prosperity of its members and preserving the quality of life of our community. With over 560 active Chamber members from both islands including businesses from Lee and Collier counties, the Chamber plays a key role in facilitating communication and cooperation between business, residents and government to enhance the economic health of the islands. The Francis P. Bailey, Jr. Chamber Visitor Center is located at the entrance to Sanibel Island and welcomes over 160,000 visitors each year. VISIT FLORIDA named the Visitor Center one of 13 official Florida Certified Tourism Information Centers. The Visitor Center is open 365 days a year and provides visitors with comprehensive information about things to do, places to visit, where to stay, shop and dine. The Chamber website http://sanibel-captiva.org receives more than 1.3 million website visits per year.
For more information about the chamber, visit sanibel-captiva.org or contact Ashley Pignato, member services manager, at 239-472-8255 or [email protected].