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Federal Judge Orders Army Corps To Study Toxic Algae In Lake O Releases

A boat churns through blue green algae in the Caloosahatchee River near LaBelle.
Pedro Portal
Miami Herald
A boat churns through blue green algae in the Caloosahatchee River near LaBelle.

A federal judge has ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate the harm to wildlife caused by water released from Lake Okeechobee.

In an order Monday, Judge Donald Middlebrooks gave the Corps a year to complete the assessment with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The study must look at how managing the lake influences blue-green algae and red tide, and what harm the two algae may cause protected manatees, sea turtles, wood storks and other species.

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The study, according to the judge's order, should also look at how the lake water damages habitat, including sea grass beds; whether the loss of seagrass harms the animals; and whether the huge releases from the lake — regardless of algae — also harm wildlife.

Algae collected from the Caloosahatchee River in 2018.
Jenny Staletovich
Water from the Caloosahatchee River in 2018 was filled with thick blue-green algae.

The order covers the two areas most damaged by the releases: the St. Lucie River Estuary and Indian River Lagoon, north to Hutchinson Island and south to Hobe South along with the Caloosahatchee River and parts of the Gulf coast, north to Boca Grande and south to San Carlos Bay and Matanzas Pass.

Jaclyn Lopez, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the ruling is the first time federal courts have ordered the Corps to consider the environmental harm caused by releasing water from the lake.

“For so long, the Army Corps has tried to hide behind some sort of imagined limitations to its regulatory authority, saying, ‘Well, we can't take into account these other factors.’ But a federal district judge has put that to rest,” she said. “It shouldn't be mutually exclusive to protect species and humans.”

The Center, along with Calusa Waterkeeper and the Waterkeeper Alliance, sued last year after a 2018 red tide swept up and down the Gulf coast, littering beaches with dead sea turtles and other wildlife. Blue-green algae and toxic blooms have also become more common in the St. Lucie River on the Atlantic coast, choking the estuary with chunky water blamed for killing wildlife and dogs.

The Corps had not taken a look at the impact from lake releases since 2007, after Hurricane Katrina prompted a nationwide review of dams, dikes and other flood protection. That led to a revised Lake Okeechobee management plan and lower lake levels to protect the 1940s-era Herbert Hoover dike. The dike is now nearing the end of a $1.7 billion repair job expected to be completed in 2022. A new management plan is also being drafted.

Middlebrooks agreed the swath of dead marine life justified a new examination.

“We had some of the worst harmful algal blooms ever recorded in Florida's history. And there is emerging evidence that these were at least in part, influenced by or attributable to the discharges," Lopez said. "Our federal environmental laws require that agencies stop and think before they act. Those laws say, 'Hey, if you're noticing these significant new impacts, you need to analyze them.'"

Earlier this month, the Corps again began releasing water to bring down lake levels. The releases were the first to the St. Lucie River in more than a year after the agency took the rare step of lowering the lake during the dry season, a move challenged by utilities and farmers.

The Corps typically tries to keep lake levels below 15.5 feet during the wet season to leave room for heavy wet season storms. Levels above about 17.5 feet threaten the dike’s safety. On Tuesday, the lake was at 16.37 feet.

In weekly briefings, the Corps' Jacksonville district commander, Col. Andrew Kelly has repeatedly said the agency has tried to avoid releasing water. But this year's record-setting hurricane season and heavy rain — the National Weather Service reported more than a half dozen cities with at least a foot above their average rainfall — made the recent releases unavoidable.

“We're getting a lot more monitoring. We're getting a lot of real time data,” Kelly said at a Friday briefing. “That technology is being applied in testing ... as we all collectively work towards minimizing the impact of algae going forward into the future.”

The Corps did not respond Tuesday afternoon to a request for comment.

Whether it's toxic algae blooms or dead seagrass in Florida Bay, Lopez said environmental impacts need to play a bigger role in how the Corps operates the lake.

Restoration has "been billed as this massive effort to try to restore and undo what we've done to the Everglades,” she said. “If we're gonna do that, we can't keep managing the lake like a reservoir.”

Jenny Staletovich is WLRN's Environment Editor. She has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years. Contact Jenny at jstaletovich@wlrnnews.org
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