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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Jul. 24, 201212:00 PM EST

Groups file suit against Corps over river

by: Michael Peltier

Frustrated over a lack of progress at the negotiating table, environmentalists on Monday filed suit in federal court to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clean up the Caloosahatchee River by letting the river flow.

A coalition of groups led by the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida filed suit in federal court in Tallahassee.

The suit charges the Corps with failing to maintain adequate water flow and water quality in the Southwest Florida river system that begins in Lake Okeechobee.

“The Corps’ refusal to supply enough fresh water from Lake Okeechobee is wrecking the Caloosahatchee,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest, who is representing the plaintiffs in the case. “It’s an environmental crisis, and it’s also an economic one."

The Corps is responsible for releasing water from the lake to the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, both of which have suffered from periodic deluges of freshwater while at other times being cut off completely or reduced to merely a trickle.

Environmental groups, which have been in talks for years with federal and state agencies about the issues, argue that the Corps has failed to meet obligations under the Federal Clean Water Act and the Florida Water Resources Act.

Corps spokesman John Campbell could not immediately be reached for comment but told the Associated Press earlier Monday that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The corps operates three water control facilities on the river. During dry times, water flow is stopped on portions of the river while water upstream is diverted back into Lake Okeechobee.

The lack of fresh water causes the areas of the river to become stagnant and ripe for algae blooms and higher salinity levels.

Water quality concerns have repeatedly closed the Olga water treatment facility, which provides drinking water to 30,000 households. So far this year, the treatment facility has been closed for two months, the suit contends.

In the past 11 years, the river has experienced at least eight algae blooms, including eight weeks of blooms last year.

"It's making people sick, both figuratively and literally" said Becky Ayech, president of the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida.

On July 15, the corps began a series of pulselike releases to mimic rainwater flow down the river. The releases are scheduled to conclude Thursday.

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