The summer’s first blue-green algae blooms on Lake Okeechobee were documented by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] last week, including a June 5 manifestation that contained 17.6 micrograms a liter of Microcystin toxins.
Water samples with 10 micrograms a liter or more of Microcystins are considered toxic by the DEP and “hazardous to humans” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA].
Three conservation groups Tuesday sued three federal agencies, demanding Okeechobee releases into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers cease until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers meets a December 2018 commitment to update its release schedule in compliance with the Endangered Species Act.
The lawsuit, filed in the Southern District of Florida in Fort Pierce, contends the Corps, which manages the 730-square-mile impoundment, has failed to address the impacts of Okeechobee’s nutrient-dense discharges into the two rivers.
“They're not acknowledging that the schedule impacts species other than those in Lake Okeechobee," said John Cassani of Calusa Waterkeeper, in a joint Tuesday statement by the three groups. "They're not acknowledging there's a downstream impact on the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries."
The lawsuit was filed by Calusa Waterkeeper of Lee County, Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity [CBD] and New York-based Waterkeeper Alliance, represented by Jaclyn Lopez, director of the Center for Biological Diversity.
In addition to the Corps, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service [USFWS] and National Marine Fisheries Service [NMFS] are co-defendants.
“Our rainy season just began, and we’re already seeing toxic algae in the lake that will soon be released into our canals and coasts,” Lopez said. “Summertime in Florida shouldn’t mean putrid, toxic waterways, dead marine life and stagnant coastal economies.”
The Corps discharges water east into the St. Lucie and west into the Caloosahatchee rivers in accordance with its Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, which is exclusively based on agricultural irrigation needs in dry winters/springs, and the need to sustain a wet-season summer “buffer” between water levels and the 30-foot high Herbert Hoover Dike, a 143-mile earthen dam that rings much of the impoundment.
Okeechobee water levels are normally maintained at 12.5 feet in summer and at 15 feet, 6 inches in winter.
This spring, however, to reduce the frequency of summer discharges – when water is more prone to algae blooms – the Corps discharged about 8 billion gallons into the rivers, allowing the lake to drop below 11 feet.
The three groups filed a December notice that they intended to sue if the Corps continued to operate under a discharge schedule that “fails to consider the long-term impacts of high-volume discharges beyond three years, discounts the effects of harmful algae blooms, and did not consider habitat impacts triggered by climate change.”
In response, the Corps announced it would update its discharge schedule and engage in “informal consultation” with the USFWS and NMFS regarding compliance with the Endangered Species Act [ESA].
According to the suit, that “informal consultation” did not evaluate how algae blooms affect protected species, relied on pre-2007 data and does not constitute a legally binding ESA review as required by federal law.
“The Army Corps’ foot-dragging jeopardizes Florida’s economy and its world-renowned waterways, while imperiling five species of endangered majestic sea turtles, as well as the only known pupping grounds of the federally endangered small-tooth sawfish, and a key warm-water refuge for the federally threatened Florida manatee,” Waterkeeper Alliance Executive Director Marc Yaggi said. “We are suing to force the Corps to fulfill its obligations and protect Florida’s rivers, coasts and wildlife.”
The lawsuit contends the Corps’ intent to operate for the next four years under the outdated schedule until Herbert Hoover Dike repairs are completed in 2022 violates its commitment to review the downstream impacts of those releases.
“Four more summers without relevant change to the Lake Schedule will further extend the damage to listed species, and jeopardize public health and the coastal economy while we continue struggling with recovery,” Calusa Waterkeeper’s Cassani said.
Repairs to the dike and construction of the $1.3 billion reservoir within the 1,150-square-mile Everglades Agricultural Area [EAA] were authorized with adoption of the America’s Water Infrastructure Act of 2018 and are scheduled to be complete by 2022.
In May, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee allocated $200 million to meet the federal government’s 50-50 share with the state “to expedite” Everglades restoration.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has outlined a four-year, $2.5 billion environmental spending plan with lawmakers committing $682 million to the effort in the state’s fiscal year 2020 budget
A key component of the plan is construction of the 240,000-acre-foot EAA reservoir, which the South Florida Water Management District estimates could reduce Okeechobee discharges by 65 percent.