It was typical JP Sasser: short and to the point. The former mayor of Pahokee's call for collaboration between Martin and the Glades counties during the most recent Martin County Commission meeting was not new. This time, however, a sense of urgency in his words was unmistakable.
His message? Let's work together. Let's seek common ground. Let's “follow the science, not the rhetoric” to solve our water issues that affect both coastal and rural communities.
We agree with him wholeheartedly.
We also agree that our coastal communities have more in common with our farming communities than most people realize, including historical connections that reach back to a time that Martin, as well as the Glades, was primarily a farming, commercial fishing, and a quite rural community.
A vital resource for both communities then, which neither can afford to lose today, is Lake Okeechobee, at the center of attention and much current debate.
Our county commissioners accepted Mr. Sassar's invitation, not only to visit, but to hold a joint commission meeting in Hendry County, inviting officials from Pahokee and other municipalities to attend as well.
They instructed County Administrator Taryn Kryzda to proceed as quickly as possible to make arrangements for the joint meeting, which will be publicized in advance so Martin residents also can attend.
The night before Mr. Sasser and other city and county officials came to Stuart to speak to the County Commission, he had attended the US Army Corps of Engineers' scoping session in Clewiston as it gathers public input prior to rewriting the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule (LORS) that regulates the lake's water levels and discharges.
By the time the repairs on Herbert Hoover Dike are completed in the next two to three years, an entirely new schedule will be ready to implement, which going forward will be called the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual.
Mr. Sasser's concern, as well as that of the preeminent expert on Lake Okeechobee, Dr. Paul Gray of the Audubon Society, is that the lake's ecology will be destroyed by lowering the water level by two feet or more during the dry season, as Rep. Brian Mast now proposes and the public has largely embraced.
For Martin County, a healthy lake is the first living filter of the millions of gallons of excess water that flow during heavy rain events from the Kissimmee River into Lake Okeechobee, before entering the C-44 canal to the St. Lucie River as a lake discharge.
Even with lower lake levels, the discharges will not be eliminated altogether. A dead lake -- with no vegetation to absorb the phosphorous and nitrogen flowing into it from the north – will result in the deterioration of our waterways at an even faster pace than now.
It also means massive cuts in available water for drinking and irrigation in the surrounding Lake Okeechobee communities, affecting the fishing, farming and tourism industries to the point that the entire area would be thrust into an economic, as well as environmental crisis.
The lake's ecology would be severely impaired, if not destroyed altogether, which in the long term will not benefit our waterways, either. Besides, a solution that simply trades harm between communities is not a solution at all.
We also remember, along with Mr. Sasser, the historical connections between Pahokee, where Mr. Sasser was raised, and the City of Stuart and Martin County, where bonds once existed among families who fished in the lake, then came to Sandsprit Park for the thrills of saltwater fishing. Many families had homes in both places.
Sandsprit Park, however, is no longer covered by Australian pines, and the mangroves along the inlet have been largely replaced by million-dollar homes. At the same time, the 40-minute drive to Pahokee has largely remained unchanged, with rows of plowed fields on both sides of the road.
Pahokee has remained unabashedly a rural farming community, yet they have the sensibilities of a coastal community toward the environment. They eliminated their septic tanks more than a decade ago, and wonder why we've been so slow to catch up, especially since clean water is such a priority here.
We look forward to the joint meeting. We agree that the timing is perfect. The differences are few. The time to work together is now.
If free from inflammatory rhetoric and with sound science guiding us, we can achieve no less than success -- on both sides of Lake Okeechobee.