Sarasota County, FL
Earthjustice, representing the Crowley Museum and Nature Center, sued the Southwest Florida Water Management District today in circuit court for the district’s misconduct that caused widespread destruction of hardwood forests along the Myakka River. The district has managed projects knowing that they were killing thousands of acres of trees with high water levels caused by fertilizer-laden irrigation runoff from irrigated vegetable farms in the upper Myakka River.
The water district permits allow farmers to use massive quantities of ground water for flood irrigation which is an extremely wasteful irrigation practice that raises the water table to a level within the plants’ root zone. The area’s porous underground allows rapid drainage of irrigation water as surface run-off into nearby creeks and rivers.
The Water Management District bought the three thousand acre Flatford Swamp in the upper Myakka River in 1991 using state conservation fund monies. But 10 years later, Flatford Swamp was a forest of dead trees. Although the district has known for years that the cause of the tree deaths was dirty irrigation water pouring off of vegetable farms and from District-funded water capture and impoundments, for several years the district never checked to see what its projects were doing, and took no action when it discovered that the projects were not built according to approved plans.
“The district is not taking responsibility for its actions; it’s a big part of the problem and has to be a big part of the solution too,” said Earthjustice attorney Monica Reimer. Earthjustice has been representing the Nature Center in litigation against the tomato farms in the area, and in 2004 successfully negotiated an agreement with one of the defendants to drastically reduce the amount of ground water flowing into Flatford Swamp.
“We were so hopeful that the Water Management District was going to stop our trees from being killed. But it is getting worse and we have huge oak trees lying dead on the ground,” said Bill Cowdright, executive director of the Crowley Museum and Nature Center.
Fertilizer in irrigation runoff is the prime contributor causing widespread toxic algae blooms. Flatford Swamp has suffered from toxic blue-green algae. Known as cyanobacteria, this algae causes severe, acute inflammatory reactions in people exposed to the algae. At one point water district employees refused to enter the swamp because of skin infections suffered by personnel that had come into contact with the water.
Read the complaint (PDF)