In the decades-long saga that is Everglades restoration, there’s been very little progress that doesn’t have roots in a state or federal courtroom battle.
It’s thanks to a federal lawsuit in the 80’s that the Everglades has mandatory nutrient pollution limits on water moving south. Though it’s been fought by polluters as too stringent almost since its inception, the “consent decree” that came from that lawsuit is widely considered the only thing keeping the toxic algae nightmare of the northern estuaries from leaking down into the Everglades. It remains the single most meaningful legislation that has ever protected the Everglades from pollution to this day.
In northern coastal communities, there are no such protections. The city of Stuart is considering a legal battle of its own, and its fate could be a game-changer for millions of Floridians.
The motivation for the Stuart lawsuit which challenges the Corps’ operational management of Lake Okeechobee is clear. Holding lake levels too high before the rainy season in 2018 resulted in the emergency discharge of 392 billion gallons of toxic water into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee. That’s water without ANY pollution standards, flushed directly into downstream communities where local populations were subjected for months to known and unknown health concerns. Short-term exposure has been correlated with an increase in emergency room visits, and scientists are only just beginning to scratch the surface of long term health effects, possible connections to neurological diseases, and the repercussion of airborne toxins.
And 2018 was just one year. Toxic discharges also occurred in 2016, 2013 and countless years prior.
So what are we to make of recent headlines suggesting city commissioners in Stuart were walking back their commitment to file legal action against the Army Corps for water management that unnecessarily placed their constituents in harm’s way? There has not been a change of heart, according to Merritt Matheson, the City Commissioner leading the charge behind the pending lawsuit, but rather a desire to make sure they’re lodging the most effective complaint at the most meaningful time.
But with just over three months standing between us and the official start of the rainy season, high lake levels pose a real threat to Floridians living near the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries. In the name of human health and safety, how could the city not sue? Maybe even more importantly, why is it the only municipality considering it?
Bold reform requires bold action.
It also requires standing up to the status quo.
U.S. Sugar sued the Corps last August, following a successful summer without significant harm from discharges. Claiming “similar concern for the human environment” as expressed by environmental groups, the suit directly opposed government action to protect communities from toxic algae discharges, favoring management by the Corps that instead prioritized water supply for sugar farmers’ own irrigation needs. Though ultimately dismissed, the Florida farming giant claimed victory when the Corps reversed course, announcing it would focus its 2020 management strategy on retaining water in the lake during the dry season instead of lowering lake levels.
Given the severity of risks that residents exposed to toxic algae blooms are up against, we’re finding it harder and harder to understand how any other priority can be addressed over human health. Just as doctors must take a hippocratic oath to do no harm, it is high time that human health and safety be the top priority for state and federal water managers, as well as the public officials that persuade and direct them.
So will Stuart set the stage for others to follow by moving forward with a lawsuit? Commissioners’ conviction to protect the health of their residents hasn’t changed, says Matheson. Their heads are down, vetting facts and developing a strategy to ensure that if and when they do file, they pack the greatest punch possible.
The real question is whether that will make enough of a difference before the start of this year’s rainy season on June 1.