Sparrow lawsuit has indirect link to water storage, U.S. Sugar land purchase
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The Florida office of a national environmental group on Thursday filed a federal lawsuit against federal agencies over protection of an endangered sparrow and Everglades restoration indirectly related to a proposed big land purchase.

Environmental groups and some local government officials are pressuring the state to exercise an option to buy 46,800 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land south of Lake Okeechobee before a state purchase option expires in October.

Gov. Rick Scott says he is focused instead on other Everglades restoration projects that will prevent polluted lake water from fouling the Indian River Lagoon and Caloosahatchee River estuary.

The Center for Biological Diversity in Vero Beach on Thursday sued the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow in Everglades National Park.

The center says the Army Corps and the Fish and Wildlife Service violated the federal Endangered Species Act through water releases that place the sparrow at the risk of extinction. The Corps must follow a federal plan to reduce discharges from Lake Okeechobee and agricultural lands, the center said.

University of Florida study in March stated that more water is needed for storage south of the lake. The Center for Biological Study supports the U.S. Sugar purchase but that issue isn’t directly tied into the lawsuit, said Noah Greenwald, the center’s endangered species director.

“Ultimately it all goes back to the Everglades Agricultural Area,” he said. “The whole reason why they are pushing too much water onto the wester Everglades is they have too much water” without enough storage.

In response, Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Ken Warren in Vero Beach noted that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said during an April 22 visit by President Barack Obama to the Everglades that the administration supports the state pursuing the U.S. Sugar land buy.

“Purchasing those acres would definitely help natural wetlands in the Everglades and improve chances of recovery of the Cape Sable seaside sparrow,” Warren said.

In a further response, Warren and Jenn Miller, a spokeswoman for the Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville, described collaborative efforts between the federal agencies and other scientists, and steps being taken to restore habitat for the sparrow and other threatened species.

At events on Wednesday in Stuart and on Captiva Island, environmentalists released letters signed by 25 municipal and county-level elected officials and resolutions approved by 11 counties and cities asking Scott and legislative leaders to exercise a state option to buy the U.S. Sugar land.

A company spokeswoman said a South Florida Water Management District report points out that one of the biggest constraints to moving more water south was federal endangered species protections. So even if the company land was purchased, additional water couldn’t be sent south.

“This suit was filed over the damages to the sparrows by the amounts of water going south today, not the increased amounts being suggested by the coastal groups,” spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said.

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee. 

Bruce Ritchie


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