Lake-area counties look forward to unifying voices

LaBELLE — The commissioners from all five of the Lake Okeechobee-area counties will gather in Okeechobee for a joint workshop/meeting on May 7.

County commissioners and staff officials from Glades, Hendry, Martin, Okeechobee and Palm Beach counties will meet at 6 p.m. next Tuesday in the Okeechobee High School Lecture Hall, 2800 U.S. 441 N., to discuss Lake Okeechobee and other matters of mutual interest. The joint meeting took time to plan since it was suggested months ago. Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, the former mayor of Palm Beach County, and a commissioner in Hendry County who’s now president of the Florida Association of Counties, Karson Turner, had pushed to make it happen. Ms. McKinlay is first vice president of the FAC.

“It took a little bit of doing to get everybody’s schedules synced up, but we’re excited,” said Hendry County Administrator Jennifer Davis as Commissioner Turner reminded his fellow Hendry County Board members Tuesday, April 23, about the long-anticipated date finally having been set.

“And then following that meeting, there’s already been some discussion about having another meeting … maybe on the southern tip as you all discussed earlier from some of the other counties,” she said.

Commissioner Turner gave a little pep talk: “And just to remind everyone, the whole gist of that meeting is for us to galvanize our efforts around Lake Okeechobee, in all the communities involved, of saying, ‘A 10-and-a-half-foot lake, and the lake being driven to (that) or below, is essentially a non-starter.’ We can’t allow for that to happen. The corps has continued to move forward with their process, but we have to be mindful of that and stop it in every way, shape or form. It’s detrimental to so many aspects on the lake.”

Hendry Commissioner Darrell Harris said he thought people seemed to be wavering on advocating for a sustained lower lake level, even as recent lake water releases by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the South Florida Water Management District have put its level near the end of the 2018-19 dry season at below 11.5 feet, about 2 feet lower than at this time last year.

“There’s a congressman that is absolutely pushing for that (a 10.5-foot lake),” Mr. Turner said, referring to U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, Republican of Stuart.

“I will say in my opinion that Gov. (Ron) DeSantis has, I think, backed off a little bit. I think the science has gotten to him … but at the same time I don’t want to speak too comfortably and say ‘Oh, there is no pressure,’ because we don’t really know,” the commissioner said.

“That governing board that Gov. DeSantis chose was all confirmed today by the Senate committee, and Noah Valenstein, who we have a really good relationship with, was also confirmed as secretary of DEP (the Department of Environmental Protection), so that’s really good for us,” Mr. Turner went on, saying now at least they knew the “deck of cards” they were playing with.

The meeting in Okeechobee will be open to the public.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com

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