Stuart seeks lawsuit to lower lake

STUART — The Stuart City Commission moved forward with their plans to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after a lengthy discussion at their Jan. 27 meeting.

While they agreed they want to sue, they have not yet determined the exact language of the lawsuit or the scope of their demands.

Mayor Michael J. Meier and Commissioner Kelli Glass Leighton spoke in favor of one big lawsuit encompassing the needs for human health and safety, the environment and protection of endangered species.

Commissioner Merritt Matheson, who first brought up the lawsuit idea at their last meeting, appeared to have more modest goals. He said the lawsuit is just one battle in a war.

One thing they all agreed on – they want zero Lake Okeechobee water released into the St. Lucie river. The mayor even held up a sign to that effect.

Commissioner Matheson has endorsed a plan to lower Lake Okeechobee to under 11 feet by the start of the wet season, in order to ensure capacity in the lake for wet season flow.

Members of the public who spoke on the matter were quick to put the blame for coastal toxic algae problems on the freshwater releases from Lake Okeechobee. (None of the other factors scientists have identified as contributing to the massive algae blooms that plagued the coastal waterways in 2016, 2017 and 2018 were even mentioned.)

“The way they’ve got the lake now, they can’t stop all the discharges,” said Maggy Hurchalla. She said if the corps agrees to lower the lake during the dry season, “it will not stop the discharges. It will lessen the discharges.”

“I think the corps will work with you,” she added.

“Substantive progress does not happen without litigation,” said Gary Goforth of the Florida Oceanographic Society. He said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Col. Andrew Kelly “did a very nice job preventing releases to the estuaries last year. “Granted it didn’t rain very much last year — let’s keep that in mind,” he added. He offered to donate $10,000 of his expert time to help work on the lawsuit.

Stuart resident Frank McChrystal questioned the use of city money for a lawsuit. “There’s not one citizen in the City of Stuart that doesn’t want zero discharges,” he said. “But there are a lot of places in the City of Stuart you need to spend money.

“This topic is being taken care of in every possible way and we don’t need to spend money on it,” he said.

Martin County Administrator Taryn Kryzda said the county is working with the corps on the Lake Okeechobee System Operational Manual (LOSOM).

LOSOM will replace the Lake Okeechobee Operation Schedule (LORS) when the repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike are complete in 2022.

She recommended the city officials let the LOSOM process work.

John Maehl, Martin County ecosystem manager, said Martin County has hired 16 experts to help with the LOSOM Project Delivery Team (PDT) process. “We also believe we have hired some of the best in-house folks,” he added.

“One of the concerns county staff has is this litigation will not lead to zero discharges,” he explained. “It will lead to discharges in the dry season instead of the wet season.

“We are concerned the message it might send,” he continued. Suing to lower the lake in the dry season would send the message the excess nutrient load is not as much of a problem in the dry season, he explained.

“We are proposing we work within the legal process of NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act) to make the best argument we can,” Mr. Maehl said. “We’ve had landmark cooperation with our state and federal partners. We believe at this point that this is the best possible approach.”

“Yes the money could go for more playgrounds. It could go for more policemen. It could go for more housing,” said Vice Mayor Eula R. Clarke. “But this is our Three Mile Island.

“We know we can’t throw enough money at it from the City of Stuart’s budget, but this is serious,” she continued. “We may become a ghost town and not have anybody coming here.”

Commissioner Matheson argued for a lawsuit to lower the lake level to under 11 feet by the start of the dry season. “By the time an algae bloom is present, history has proven it is already too late and the corps has no other option but to discharge toxic water on us,” he said. “I have faith in LOSOM but I also have faith that we can have another summer like 2019.”

“I don’t want us to lose momentum,” said the mayor. “Let’s make sure we’re rowing all in the right direction. We are all rightfully mad as hell. We are all sick. We are all going to be feeling the effects of this toxins for a long time.

“There are a lot of ways we can show political will,” he continued. “We can storm the South Florida Water Management District. We can storm the federal government. We can join hands and jump off the bridge together for this cause … not saying that we should.” The mayor said he has spoken to some lawyers and he wants to be sure the lawsuit they file will not be something the corps can very easily brush off.

“As far as this lawsuit goes, I don’t want to vote it down,” he continued.

“Before we do the filing and collaborative mediation, can we get them in the boat in the middle of Lake Okeechobee and say, ‘we need to talk’ – otherwise somebody is going overboard?” joked Commissioner Clarke.

“The reality is I think that we have one shot at this and I don’t want us to have our emotions overcoming our rational thinking,” said Commissioner Leighton. “Let’s set aside the emotion and get the science and the logic behind it.”

“This is what we want,” agreed the mayor, holding up a sign that said “zero releases.” He suggested they work with scientists and legal experts to develop a strategy to get that desired result.

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