City commissioners and residents of Stuart, Fla., yesterday unanimously voted to take legal action against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for allegedly putting the health of the St. Lucie River and the people who use and live near it at risk.
An initial draft of a lawsuit said that by holding water in Lake Okeechobee during the dry season, the Corps of Engineers increases the risk of discharges of lake water during the summer, which can cause toxic blue-green algae blooms.
“It’s time to get in the boat and row,” commissioner Eula Clarke told TCPalm.com.
The commission reportedly authorized city attorney Michael Mortell to seek legal and scientific advice for the suit. Gary Goforth, a Stuart-based environmental engineer who has been an expert witness in cases against the Corps of Engineers, allegedly offered his services for $10,000.
Commissioner Merritt Matheson pushed for drafting the lawsuit and said that the city must use professional mediation to work out a solution with the agency. “I hope we can work with the corps, but from an aggressive posture,” Matheson said in the the TCPalm report.
Matheson said he wants to prevent discharges this year and next year until the Lake Okeechobee System Operating Manual goes into effect in 2022.
The lawsuit claims the Corps of Engineers is violating the National Environmental Policy Act, which calls for government agencies to “use all practicable means and measures … to foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans.”
Stuart residents want the engineers to bring Lake Okeechobee’s level down to around 11 feet by June 1, the start of the summer rainy season. Lowering the level would allow the lake rise more than 3 feet during the summer without risking a breach of the Herbert Hoover Dike.
The Corps of Engineers said it used “operational flexibility” when it decided to lower the lake last year. “The conditions in the lake aren’t the same this year as last year, so we don’t have the operational flexibility we had last year,” spokesman John Campbell told TCPalm. “That tool is meant to be used infrequently.”
Col. Andrew Kelly, the agency’s commander for Florida, said in December that operations in 2020 will focus on retaining water to supply agriculture and other users south of the lake.