Dirty water and algae blooms bring threat of a lawsuit by environmentalists

Fear grows as Lake Okeechobee faces toxic algae bloom

A deepening algae bloom across Lake Okeechobee in 2018 raised fears along the Treasure Coast and Calooshatchee River that another toxic summer was forming.
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A deepening algae bloom across Lake Okeechobee in 2018 raised fears along the Treasure Coast and Calooshatchee River that another toxic summer was forming.

Florida environmentalists on Wednesday threatened to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over plans to continue flushing dirty water from Lake Okeechobee — blamed for fueling toxic algae blooms — for another seven years.

In a notice of intent to sue, the Center for Biological Diversity said the Corps had failed to consider long-term damage to wildlife in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and estuaries when it drafted a plan for lake water levels while it repairs the lake’s aging dike. The Corps began work on the 1940s-era, 143-mile dike in 2001 but has been under increasing pressure to complete repairs as foul blooms repeatedly slime coasts.

This summer, a saltwater red tide coincided with the lake releases, which scientists say exacerbated the yearlong tide and helped turn Pine Island Sound into ground zero for massive fish kills.

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This male loggerhead turtle was treated at Sanibel’s Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) for red tide poisoning in July. CROW

“What we’re suing over is meaningful change for how the Corps regulates the lake so these species are not unfairly harmed year after year,” said Jaclyn Lopez, a senior attorney for the center.

The center, along with the Calusa Waterkeepers and Waterkeeper Alliance, also plans to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service for agreeing to the lake releases without fully considering impacts.

The Corps agreed this year to spend another half billion dollars to speed up work and finish repairs by 2022. The agency also said it would begin reviewing a new schedule for water levels in the lake, a process that normally takes three years, so levels can be adjusted more quickly.

Corps spokesman John Campbell declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, but said the agency hopes to have the new schedule completed by the time repairs are finished.

“The intent is to have an updated water management plan that considers a rehabilitated dike and whatever other infrastructure might be online and conduct an analysis while the work is ongoing,” he said. “We want something we can implement as soon as rehab is complete.”

The agency set levels between 12.5 and 15 feet to allow enough room for storage during the rainy season and water supplies during the dry season. However, it’s still not clear whether levels can be increased to reduce discharges since the historically shallow lake is bordered on the west by marshy edges that draw anglers and endangered snail kites.

Environmentalists say the schedule, drawn up in 2008 after levees collapsed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, was originally intended as a temporary fix. But they say a request the Corps made to wildlife managers now suggests it plans to continue the releases until 2025 without re-evaluating worsening conditions.

Dead fish clog a canal in Coral Shores in Southwest Florida in August. Tiffany Tompkins Bradenton Herald

“This is now 2018 and there’s no relief in sight,” Lopez said.

Spokespeople for the wildlife and fisheries services said the agencies do not comment on pending lawsuits.

This story was updated to include a response from the Corps.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich