Enviromental groups plan to sue Corps for polluted Lake Okeechobee discharges

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red tide fish kill beach
Dead fish during red tide outbreak on Treasure Island Beach, Pinellas County. By Seán Kinane (12 October 2018).

Three Florida environmental groups announced Wednesday that they intend to sue several federal agencies unless they take precautions to stop harming endangered species before releasing more polluted water from Lake Okeechobee. The water released contains toxic “green slime” cyanobacteria as well as high concentrations of nutrients that can feed red tide outbreaks.

Jaclyn Lopez is Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups threatening to sue the Army Corps and other federal agencies.

“Today the Center for Biological Diversity, Calusa Waterkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance noticed the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service of our intention of filing suit over violations of the Endangered Species Act for the Army Corps’ discharges of Lake Okeechobee and their impacts to downstream resources like wildlife and communities.”

How are these groups — in your mind — violating the Endangered Species Act protections for Florida organisms? What’s the relationship between the Lake Okeechobee discharges and the Endangered Species Act?

“Year after year the Army Corps of Engineers discharges polluted waters from Lake Okeechobee down into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. And year after year it does this despite the opposition of these communities that receive these polluted waters. The problem is that the water that leaves Lake Okeechobee — between the nutrient loading that occurs in the lake and the cyanobacteria blooms, which are toxic algae that then go down into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie — between those two things impacting the wildlife that are downstream, the cyanmobacteria acts as a toxin on these species. It kills them.

K. brevis
A cell of K. brevis, the species of microscopic algae that causes Florida red tide. – Credit: Mote Marine Laboratory, used by permission.

“And then now we’ve seen with red tide as it has moved onshore the potential synergistic and cumulative effects of the discharges and red tide. So, feeding the red tide — making the impacts of red tide worse — and then slamming these communities and the wildlife with both the discharges that come from the lake and now the red tide that’s being fueled by the discharges.

“The Army Corps of Engineers is the federal agency responsible for the discharges.It’s been doing these discharges since 2008, at least on this particular regulatory schedule, with the intention that they be an interim fix while the Herbert Hoover Dike (around Lake Okeechobee) repairs be completed.

“So, back in 2008, it was only intended that these repairs take a few years and that other Everglades restoration projects would be completed. And that at that time, once those things were completed, that the Corps would go about a different regulation schedule. Hopefully one that would be less damaging to the downstream resources.

“We’ve waited patiently now for ten years for that to happen. And it hasn’t happened. So, today’s notice letter alerts the Army Corps that these communities have had enough. They’re not going to take it. And that the Army Corps has to do a true accounting of the environmental impacts of these discharges. Because every time it flushes that toilet down into the Caloosahatchee and the St. Lucie, wildlife and people are suffering.”

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