A federal judge ruled recently that water discharges from Lake Okeechobee managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are to be evaluated to make sure they’re not harmful to native and protected wildlife.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida Judge Donald Middlebrooks ruled at the end of October that the Army Corps violated the Endangered Species Act and ordered the federal agency to reinitiate consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — in order to prepare a biological assessment on effects of the overflow releases into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries, on seagrass die-off as well as protected species such as manatees and their critical habitat, nesting sea turtles, smalltooth sawfish, piping plovers, wood storks, and red knots.
Middlebrooks found “shocking” the number of manatee deaths following the release of highly nutrient-rich water from the country’s second-largest freshwater lake often referred to as the “liquid heart” of the Everglades.
“Between December 2017 and Aug. 18, 2018, [the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission] attributed 52 of 67 manatee deaths to red algae. ... This statistic is particularly shocking as the 2018 Opinion reports that ‘[f]rom 2000 through 2012 there were 64 manatee deaths reported from the Lake Okeechobee area,’” he wrote in his ruling.
“Assuming the area measured is roughly the same, this means that more manatees died within an eight-month period of red tide than died within 12 years.” he continued.
The Army Corps will evaluate the effects of the Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule, imposed since 2008, on blue-green algae and red tide, and the effect of harmful algal blooms.
The lawsuit, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Calusa Waterkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance in June 2019 through 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 protect wildlife.
“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 court also found that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conceded that lake discharges cause blue-green algae that contain a toxin linked to neurodegenerative diseases that may impact and 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 of Calusa Waterkeeper.
“Protecting ecosystems impacted by [the Lake Okeechobee Release Schedule] will also help sustain the regional economy dependent on tourism and property values,” he added.
Lake discharges are sent west to the Caloosahatchee River and estuary that empties into the Gulf of Mexico, and east to the St. Lucie River and estuary that empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
In 2000, Congress approved the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, a $10.5 billion, a 35-year-plus project to restore central and south Florida water resources, including Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, according to the court paperwork.
These restoration projects, consisting of reservoirs, stormwater treatment areas, natural lands, flow-equalization basins, and other features, are intended to work in tandem to store, treat and convey treated water to where it is needed most, namely Everglades National Park and Florida Bay, instead of flushing it as untreated water into the estuaries.
“We are pleased to hear that the Corps has been ordered to study and consider impacts of Lake Okeechobee releases and management on endangered wildlife,” said Keys resident and Florida Bay Forever director Emma Haydocy. “While the study area primarily covers the estuaries most directly impacted by the damaging releases on the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee, steps taken to manage the lake like a living system rather than simply a reservoir is beneficial for the greater Everglades and therefore Florida Bay.
“Part of what we hope to see with the construction of the EAA Reservoir and other CERP projects aimed at storing, cleaning, and conveying water south to Everglades National Park and Florida Bay is the lessening of harmful discharges to the areas covered in this study,” added Haydocy. “It is critically important that the lake is managed holistically with the environment and wildlife in mind. That is, after all, what we are working so hard to restore.”
While several CERP projects have already been implemented many more still await congressional funding, according to the Middlebrooks order.
Meanwhile, pollutants from agriculture, industry and urban areas have tainted Everglades waters with phosphorus, nitrogen, and mercury.