3 Florida environmental groups sue Army Corps over algae blooms

Cape Coral, left, the Caloosahatchee River and Fort Myers.

Photo by DAVID AHNTHOLZ, Daily News // Buy this photo

Cape Coral, left, the Caloosahatchee River and Fort Myers.

— The fight to stem devastating algae blooms in the Caloosahatchee River has landed in court.

Three environmental groups filed suit Monday in federal court in Fort Myers to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to change the way it operates water control gates on the river to flush out pollution blamed for carpeting the river in a bright green slime.

The algae blooms wreak havoc on the river’s ecosystem, prompt public health warnings, close a drinking water plant that serves 40,000 households in eastern Lee County and threaten a tourism industry that depends on a healthy Caloosahatchee, river advocates say.

“It’s unacceptable,” said Becky Ayech, president of the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida. “It’s more than that. It’s sickening. It’s sickening.”

Earthjustice filed the lawsuit on behalf of the confederation, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Three gates — the Moore Haven Lock, the Ortona Lock and Franklin Lock — control the flow of water from Lake Okeechobee into the river and downstream into the Gulf of Mexico.

The corps releases water from the lake under a regulation schedule that calls for keeping lake levels between 12.5 feet and 15.5 feet to protect the environment, avoid breaches in the lake’s aging dike and provide flood control and water supply.

The lawsuit says a lack of fresh water in the river during the dry season leads to violations of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s water quality standards and a South Florida Water Management District regulation that sets a minimum flow for the river.

Without enough fresh water, high salinities kill off sea grass beds that act as a fish nursery. Inadequate flows also lead to low oxygen levels in the water. Stagnating water with high levels of nutrients, such as from fertilizer or waste, creates ideal growing conditions for algae.

Algae blooms have afflicted the river eight of the past 11 years, including eight weeks of blooms in 2011 alone, the lawsuit says.

That’s bad for business at the Alva Village Market, a convenience store that is a frequent stop for ice, beer and sandwiches for boaters and fishermen. Manager Dick Spence said his business drops off 90 percent when there is an algae bloom on the river.

“You can’t give it away,” he said. “Nobody goes out on the water. It’s ridiculous. It’s a shame.”

Corps spokeswoman Terry Hines-Smith said the agency would have no comment on the lawsuit but said flows down the river require a “very delicate balance” between the environment and water users.

So-called pulse releases the corps periodically makes from the lake into the Caloosahatchee aren’t enough, Conservancy President Andrew McElwain said.

“It’s been completely hit or miss,” he said.

A representative of the agriculture industry, which has fought for years with environmental groups over how water managers divvy up water from Lake Okeechobee, called the lawsuit “kind of a futile thing to do.”

“It uses up money in the court system rather than on (river) restoration,” said Charles Shinn, vice president of government affairs for the Florida Farm Bureau Federation.

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Posted earlier

TALLAHASSEE — Three environmental groups sued the Army Corps of Engineers, the state and a water management district Monday over smelly, slimy green algae blooms that have been polluting the Caloosahatchee River in Southwest Florida.

The lawsuit in U.S. District Court here alleges the corps is violating state and South Florida Water Management District regulations by diverting water that should be going into the river to 500,000 acres of sugar cane fields instead.

"The Corps' refusal to supply enough water from Lake Okeechobee is wrecking the Caloosahatchee," said David Guest, a lawyer for the environmental legal group Earthjustice. "It's an environmental crisis, and it's also an economic one."

Earthjustice sued on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, Conservancy of Southwest Florida and Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida.

Corps spokesman John Campbell said he had nothing to say, citing a policy against commenting on pending litigation. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the water management district had no immediate comment.

The suit seeks a court order declaring that the corps' operation of water control structures violates state laws and regulations and directing it to comply with those requirements.

The environmentalists say algae outbreaks in eight of the past 11 years, including one last week, have resulted in health department warnings against touching or drinking the water or eating fish caught in the river. It's also caused Lee County to shut down a public drinking water plant that uses river water.

Tourism has suffered because the green slime has caused a stench and fish kills on Gulf of Mexico beaches near the mouth of the river, they said.

"We are lucky to live in one of the most beautiful places in the country, but how many tourists will keep coming here when the river is covered with stinking slime?" said Andrew McElwaine, president of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Florida Wildlife Federation President Manley Fuller said marine and estuarine habitats vital to recreational and commercial fishing are being harmed.

"The polluted water is killing the sea grass nurseries at the estuary where fish and shellfish spawn," Fuller said.

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