This week, Congressman Brian Mast took a stand for clean water and human health when he filed the PROTECT Florida Act.
This landmark legislation proposes a unified solution with immediate impacts for three critically important waterways, by declaring protection of human health throughout the entire Everglades system as the greatest priority for operational management of Lake Okeechobee by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The people have spoken.
April brought to a close more than two months of public comment sessions hosted by the Corps. Thousands of voices weighed in, from across the state and beyond, to build the record, provide feedback, and raise concerns as the Corps deliberates the replacement of the current Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule with a new policy, now dubbed the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual (LOSOM).
At the microphone, their stories were diverse and emotional, offering glimpses into personal lives and broad ranges of interests, backgrounds, and locales.
But there was a resounding unity in their testimony: People are angry and terrified of being poisoned and they demand definitive action from the agencies tasked with protecting them.
Protecting Human Health and Safety through the PROTECT Florida Act
The current operational priorities governing the lake’s management include flood control, irrigation, navigation, water supply, enhancement of fish and wildlife, and recreation. But despite a known risk of releases exposing people to dangerously high levels of toxins, they do not include impacts to human health.
For more than 70 years, the Army Corps has managed Lake Okeechobee without consideration for the health of those impacted in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee watersheds and further south in Florida Bay. As a result, Floridians have been exposed to an array of serious near-term health threats. Additionally, researchers have linked toxins in discharges lakewater to increased risks of liver failure, ALS, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Parkinson’s Disease.
Under the existing priorities, the current operational management of Lake Okeechobee does not use all the available capacity in the system to send water south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay or west to the Caloosahatchee in the dry season to lower the lake to safe levels. As a result, Florida enters the wet season with too little room to accommodate heavy rain events, increasing the likelihood of a breach of the Herbert Hoover Dike and virtually guaranteeing large-scale toxic discharges to coastal communities.
The Protect Florida Act has the power to change all of that, right now, at no cost to taxpayers.
For the purpose of this legislation, public health is defined as managing Lake Okeechobee and the Central and Southern Florida system to:
- Minimize the potential of toxic cyanobacteria and other harmful algal blooms;
- Prevent discharges containing cyanobacteria or related toxins into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee watersheds, downstream users, and any other area where it would exacerbate public health risks;
- Ensure the integrity and stability of the Herbert Hoover Dike;
- Maintain all provisions of applicable State, Federal and Tribal water quality laws, policies and regulations
- Make sure necessary water volume and quality reaches the Everglades, Tribal lands, Everglades National Park, Florida Bay and Caloosahatchee Watershed to restore the natural habitat.
With the passing of this legislation, the Lake Okeechobee system will no longer be governed by priorities set at a time when Florida had millions fewer people and a radically different economy. We cannot allow a policy relic to continue to risk the health of our communities, waterways, and our economy any longer. We owe it to our children to do better. This law is our chance.