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Lawsuit blames Swiftmud for dieoff of trees

A nature center say s excessive crop irrigation allowed by the agency ravaged a swamp forest.

Published October 17, 2006

A Sarasota nature center sued the Southwest Florida Water Management District Monday, accusing the state agency of allowing farmers to kill thousands of trees in the nature center and the Myakka River valley.

The cause of death: too much water.

Throughout the 250 square miles of the upper Myakka River watershed, more than 70 farms grow squash, peppers, cucumbers, even sod. Tomatoes are the biggest crop.

By 1998 the state agency commonly known as Swiftmud was allowing Myakka farmers to pump up to 73-million gallons of water a day out of the ground and onto their crops. But the water didn't stay there.

Scientists later determined that 12-million gallons of the fertilizer-laden water flooded into the hardwood swamps along the Myakka daily during what was supposed to be the area's dry season.

That was nearly double the daily amount consumed by Sarasota's 150,000 utilities customers - at a time when residents were being told to conserve water.

Trees in a hardwood swamp need October to May to dry out their roots before the summer rains inundate them again. With so much extra water flowing into the swamp, the trees drowned. Popash, tupelo, oak and red maple, some with trunks 4 feet wide, toppled over and died.

Tens of thousands of trees have drowned, including many in the 3,000-acre Flatford Swamp, an area that Swiftmud had spent tax dollars to preserve. The Crowley Nature Center and Museum downstream also suffered a massive tree dieoff.

A search of Swiftmud records by Earthjustice, the law firm representing the nature center, found the polluted water flowing into the swamp also posed a health risk to scientists studying the tree dieoff.

A 1999 internal Swiftmud memo noted that some researchers wading in the swamp "experienced a burning and/or tingling sensation," while others "complained of unexplained rashes."

Swiftmud experts believed the burning and rashes were caused by a toxic algae species called Lyngbya, which can bloom when fueled by fertilizer. A similar problem was recently documented among Florida state park visitors who swam in springs polluted with fertilizer-laden runoff.

Word of the Flatford Swamp tree dieoff made headlines in the late 1990s. Pressure mounted to force farmers to change to more efficient irrigation methods.

But Swiftmud officials, fearing lawsuits, opted to work with farmers and persuaded them to trim their pumping levels back. They also cut deals with two growers to split the cost of a multimillion-dollar experiment: irrigating their crops with excess water from the Flatford Swamp.

Swiftmud spokesman Mike Molligan said Monday agency officials had not reviewed the suit and could not comment on it.

"We're aware of the problem" with the trees, Molligan said. "We've been working on projects there to reduce the runoff going into Flatford."

But the suit claims the experiment with the farmers failed.

The suit points to a 2005 Swiftmud report "concluding that the overall conditions in Flatford Swamp showed evidence of increased water levels and concurrent decreased tree health ... compared to the previous five years of study providing further proof that the excessive irrigation water continued to flow into the swamp and downstream onto" the nature center property.

"The Nature Center folks believed Swiftmud was working to solve the problem," said Monica Reimer, an attorney with Earthjustice. "But what our review of the records showed is that all that has failed."

[Last modified October 17, 2006, 01:55:38]

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