On behalf of Florida Wildlife Federation, Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, Earthjustice filed suit in federal court against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers because the agency is repeatedly violating water protection laws in Southwest Florida’s Caloosahatchee River.
The Caloosahatchee—officially designated as a public drinking water source—has been covered with slimy green algae outbreaks eight of the past 11 years, and an outbreak slimed the river just last week. The algae releases a nauseating smell, gives people respiratory problems, causes massive fish kills and harms many wild species.
The Glades, Hendry and Lee County public health departments have had to issue multiple public health warnings saying that that neither people nor animals should come into contact with the water, drink it or eat the fish.
Lee County’s Olga drinking water plant, which draws from the river and is supposed to serve 40,000 people, has had to shut down repeatedly because the water is unfit to drink, even after extensive treatment.
The suit is filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, because the Corps has caused the Caloosahatchee’s problems by cutting off the river’s water supply. The Corps operates three water control structures that regulate the flow of water from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee estuary at the Gulf of Mexico. Instead of providing the Caloosahatchee with the flow it needs to stay healthy, the Corps diverts water to irrigate 500,000 acres of sugar cane fields south of Lake Okeechobee. The river is too often left stagnant and polluted.
“The Corps’ refusal to supply enough fresh water from Lake Okeechobee is wrecking the Caloosahatchee,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. “It’s an environmental crisis, and it’s also an economic one. Tourists who came to visit Sanibel Island over the Christmas break this year arrived to find stinking green algae and dead fish on the beaches. People have had to endure a nasty stench in downtown Fort Myers. Dead fish have washed up on the beaches in front of condos and hotels in Naples. This can’t be good for tourism.”
ABC News in Fort Myers last week interviewed a fisherman, Dan Sabo, who lives on the Caloosahatchee, and he said he moved to Florida to get away from respiratory issues in New Jersey. The river in his backyard has been a stinking mess.
“It's a green slime,” he said. “It would be like if you add oil and water to a jar and you dyed the oil green. That's what it looks like. Chest is sore, you're breathing funny, you're sick. It's like the beginning of the flu. It smells like something is rotting."
Andrew McElwaine, president of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said the pollution is affecting the region’s economy—where most jobs are dependent on the tourism industry.
“We are lucky to live in one of the most beautiful places in the country,” he said. “But how many tourists will keep coming here when the river is covered with stinking slime? The Corps simply has to do a better job protecting the Caloosahatchee. It is imperative for the Corps to provide adequate flow to keep the river healthy.”
Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said the Corps’ operations are devastating essential marine and estuarine habitats that support recreational and commercial fishing.
“The polluted water is killing the seagrass nurseries at the estuary where fish and shellfish spawn,” Fuller said. “It’s too bad we have to go to court to get the authorities to do their job of protecting this river, but we do what we have to do. It belongs to the public, and we should all be able to enjoy it.”