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Court sides with environmental groups on Lake O releases

By NATHAN MAYBERG / nmayberg@breezenewspapers.com - | Nov 3, 2020

A court order will require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the effects of Lake Okeechobee releases on threatened and endangered species, as well as how it impacts algae blooms and red tide.

Donald Middlebrooks, District Court Judge for the Southern District of Florida, issued the order last week requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prepare a biological assessment on the effects of the releases on listed species and their critical habitat.

Those include manatees, nesting sea turtles, the piping plover, wood stork and red knot.

The order is the result of a lawsuit filed last year by the Center For Biological Diversity, Calusa Waterkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance against the Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In a statement issued by John Cassani of the Calusa Waterkeeper, the decision was read as “holding the federal government more accountable for their actions affecting endangered species and federally designated critical habitat.”

Cassani said he believes the order will result in the Army Corps of Engineers making “changes to the regulation schedule. The degree of that will be determined through the process.”

The order requires the Army Corps of Engineers to consider the following geographic scope in its biological assessment: Caloosahatchee River Estuary and immediate outfall area north to and including Boca Grande and south to and including San Carlos Bay and Matanzas Pass; Okeechobee waterway; Lake Okeechobee; St. Lucie River Estuary and immediate outfall area in Southern Indian River Lagoon north to Hutchinson Island and south to Hobe Sound.

The Army Corps of Engineers is required to identify and analyze the best available data and information on the role of hydrology, nutrients, water management, and climate on harmful algal blooms in Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries in developing its biological assessment.

The Corps has 90 days to transmit the biological assessment to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the completion of the consultation is required no later than one year from now.

According to the order, the Army Corps of Engineers will review the most recent water quality monitoring data on a regular basis for blue green algae and red tide in the consultation area from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, South Florida Water Management District, and Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. To the extent it is updated and available from those agencies, the Corps will link to that information on its Website at “http://www.saj.usace.army.mil/Algae”>www.saj.usace.army.mil/Algae under the heading “Weekly Water Quality Monitoring Data.”

The Army Corps of Engineers will also be required to review the most recent monitoring data and information from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service regarding the abundance, distribution, and movement of manatees in the consultation area, including radio telemetry data for manatees and the tracking of manatee movements during periods of no discharges and discharges, and any associated reports by these agencies.

Cassani said the lawsuit was necessary due to a lack of responsiveness from the Army Corps of Engineers to information regarding harmful algae blooms resulting from the releases. Cassani said the issue goes back more than a decade.

Cassani said the situation has been improving, with the Army Corps of Engineers holding off releases this year until it was no longer possible to wait, last month.

“We appreciate the Corps doing this,” Cassani said. “They are implementing this flexibility to help avoid harmful algae blooms.”

Cassani said the Corps has modified their regulation schedule, which is helping.

The Army Corps of Engineers recently announced that it is considering an emergency deviation to its water control plan due to high water levels in the Everglades. The emergency deviation aims to reduce stages in Palm Beach and Broward counties for the protection of fish and wildlife resources.

“All water conservation areas are significantly above schedule due to recent heavy rains on the east coast of Florida,” according to a statement issued by the Corps on Oct. 30.

“I don’t think there are immediate feasible options,” Cassani said.

He said a $2 billion storage project in the Everglades will likely be online in several years. There are some additional shallow storage areas north of Lake Okeechobee being proposed.

The latest discharge from Lake Okeechobee last month has left a dark water plume into the Gulf of Mexico which is “high in nutrient concentration,” Cassani said. He said there are growing algae blooms as a result.

“It’s a deteriorating situation,” he said.

Cassani said he has reported one of the algae blooms to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. He is concerned about the toxins getting into the food chain.

Erica Skolte, a public affairs specialist for the Army Corps of Engineers, declined comment on the case and said any questions would be referred to the Department of Justice.

A message left with the public affairs office for the Department of Justice was not immediately returned.