A coalition of environmental groups is suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, arguing that the way the agency dumps polluted water from Lake Okeechobee is causing toxic algae blooms throughout the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers.
"This is making people sick, figuratively and literally," said Becky Ayech of the Environmental Coalition of Southwest Florida, citing complaints about everything from nausea to earaches among people who live along the river. "People have a right to clean water."
When heavy rains push the water level in Lake Okeechobee too high, the Corps opens floodgates that dump millions of gallons of lake water into the Caloosahatchee and also into the St. Lucie River on the state's east coast. But the lake water is full of pollutants, especially nutrients that can fuel algae blooms.
Algae blooms have plagued the Caloosahatchee eight of the past 11 years, the lawsuit points out. Last year's algae bloom lasted for eight weeks, during which officials in Glades, Hendry and Lee counties warned residents to avoid contact with the river water and not to eat the fish.
Even worse, according to the suit filed Monday in federal court, is the fact that what the Corps is releasing from the lake is so polluted it forces the shutdown of a water plant that is supposed to use the river to quench the thirst of 40,000 people.
The problem, according to the suit, is that when water levels are low, the Corps holds water back from the rivers —- to the point where the Caloosahatchee sometimes runs backward. That not only lets the freshwater river turn salty, it also bottles up the pollution in the lake and makes it worse when it's finally released, the suit contends.
Corps spokesman John Campbell said the agency normally does not comment on litigation. However, he said, the Corps manages the lake level in accordance with a 2008 guide that was prepared with the help of some environmental groups.