Environmental groups sue Corps, federal agencies over toxic Lake O discharges

Conservation groups are suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies over continuing discharges of polluted water from Lake Okeechobee and their impact on marine animals and people’s health.

Dirty water that’s regularly allowed to flow from Lake O has fouled the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie Rivers with contaminated runoff from surrounding farms and cities, leading to blue-green algae blooms that pose health risks to nature and communities in the area, the groups said. They want the Corps to change its Lake O discharge operations to take into account the impact of pollution on protected species.

Although blue-green algae can occur naturally, increases in the amount of phosphorous from farm fertilizers that make their way into the lake have exacerbated the blooms in recent years, fouling waterways and angering coastal communities that rely on tourism and fishing. Exposure to high levels of the blue-green algae, which is in fact a type of bacteria, has been linked to liver, gastrointestinal and nervous system problems.

“Our rainy season just began, and we’re already seeing toxic algae in the lake that will soon be released into our canals and coasts,” Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups suing the Corps, said in a statement. “Summertime in Florida shouldn’t mean putrid, toxic waterways, dead marine life and stagnant coastal economies.’’

The Corps declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The Center, along with Calusa Waterkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance, says the Corps has failed to address the harmful effects of lake pollution on endangered species and humans because it hasn’t updated the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule.

The Corps is already in the midst of revising lake operations and said changes will likely coincide with the completion of a $1.7 billion repair project of the aging Herbert Hoover Dike, expected in 2022.

In late April, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the state’s first blue-green algae task force, saying the toxic algae was a “massive problem’’ and admitting it could have been a contributing factor to a worsening of a red tide in 2017-2018. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is hosting its first task force meeting on Wednesday to “expedite water quality improvements in the next five years.’’

Last year, the releases of Lake O water coincided with a red tide that swept up and down the Gulf Coast and filled beaches with dead manatees and sea turtles. Scientists say the polluted lake water flushed down the Caloosahatchee river likely exacerbated it.

In the lawsuit, conservationists asked the court to declare that the Corps, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are violating environmental laws for not protecting imperiled species. The Fish & Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

“Four more summers without relevant change to the Lake Schedule will further extend the damage to listed species, and jeopardize public health and the coastal economy while we continue struggling with recovery,” John Cassani, from Calusa Waterkeeper, said in a statement.

A court ruling could give the environmental groups more leverage in pushing the agencies to overhaul Lake O management systems and to invest more in protecting threatened species.