FORT PIERCE, Fla.— Conservation groups filed a proposal in federal court today to ensure that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ discharges from Lake Okeechobee don’t harm protected wildlife.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Fort Pierce ordered the parties to submit this proposal after it held that the Army Corps violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to assess the harm the releases cause to protected species like manatees and sea turtles last month. The proposal, which must first be approved by the court, was filed as required by the court’s ruling.
“This is an important legal victory for the communities and wildlife repeatedly harmed by ‘the Corps’ toxic discharges,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We hope the agencies will seize this opportunity to build public trust and help improve the health of our coastal waterways and wildlife.”
The lawsuit, filed in June 2019 under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, challenged the Army Corps’ refusal to address harms caused by the lake’s toxic, nutrient-rich discharges to human health, the environment and protected wildlife.
After the groups filed the lawsuit, the Army Corps initiated a new NEPA analysis on the Lake Okeechobee regulation schedule, or LORS, that guides water releases from the lake.
Last month the court found that the manatee deaths caused by red tide was “shocking,” and that “the facts are clear that the water within the Lake was highly nutrient-rich, which experts believe causes red-tide, and that the Corps emitted nutrient-rich water leading up to a severe red-tide bloom.”
The court also found that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conceded that lake discharges cause blue-green algae and that “there is a strong inference” that BMAA (a blue-green algae toxin linked to neurodegenerative diseases) and impacts on seagrass from blue-green algae may cause harm to manatees or other protected species.
“We’re encouraged that the federal agencies will finally assess the impacts of harmful algal blooms fueled by Lake Okeechobee discharges on endangered species and their habitats,” said John Cassani, Calusa Waterkeeper. “Protecting ecosystems impacted by LORS will also help sustain the regional economy dependent on tourism and property values.”
If the judge approves today’s proposed order, the Corps will be required to:
- Consider the effects of LORS operations on blue-green algae and red tide and the effect of the resulting harmful algal blooms on species and habitats protected under the Endangered Species Act;
- Analyze the best available information on hydrology, nutrients, water management and climate on harmful algal blooms in Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries; and
- Review and post on its website the most recent water-quality monitoring data for red tide and blue-green algae, field monitoring data and information on seagrasses impacted by LORS, and monitoring information on the abundance, distribution and movement of manatees in Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and estuaries.
“While significant work remains to address the dreadful impacts to water quality and communities from polluted Lake Okeechobee releases into Florida’s rivers and estuaries, we are pleased that the federal government must now reconsider how years of these discharges have harmed endangered and threatened species,” said Daniel E. Estrin, general counsel and advocacy director at Waterkeeper Alliance. “Adjustments to release practices that the Army Corps adopted after we filed our lawsuit appear to be helping, and we expect the Corps to manage necessary future releases to minimize the frequency, duration and magnitude of toxic cyanobacteria and red tide blooms.”