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Judge rules Okeechobee pumping is illegal

Florida water officials say the court order could hinder restoration efforts in progress in the Everglades if they have to focus on permit processing.

Published December 12, 2006


MIAMI - A federal judge ruled Monday that Florida water managers violated the federal Clean Water Act by pumping contaminated water from farmland into Lake Okeechobee and ordered further proceedings to determine what to do about it.

The 107-page order from U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga, following a trial that began in January, concluded that the South Florida Water Management District failed to obtain the necessary Clean Water Act permits.

The decision was a victory for Friends of the Everglades, the Florida Wildlife Federation and other environmental and conservation groups as well as the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, which considers the lake and Everglades part of its ancestral home.

"The finding ... was that the statute, the Clean Water Act, has a plain meaning. The meaning is that backpumping like this - water transfers that carry pollutants - require permits," said attorney David Guest, with the nonprofit Earthjustice law firm.

"This is a great victory for the environment, Lake Okeechobee, and the Miccosukee Tribe," Dione Carroll, an attorney for the tribe, said in a statement.

Since the 1970s, the water district has pumped water from canals adjacent to sugar-growing lands into the lake for flood control and to keep up water supplies during drought. The water is polluted with agricultural contaminants and runoff from nearby towns, contributing to poor water quality in the 730-square-mile lake.

While the case was pending, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule that would effectively allow such water transfers without permits around the country. Altonaga's ruling throws the future of that rule into doubt.

EPA officials in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

The South Florida Water Management District issued a statement saying the ruling could make it more difficult to move water when necessary and add costs to the broader Everglades restoration effort.

"The judge's ruling is especially troubling in that it creates a definite distraction from our forward momentum with Everglades restoration," said Nicolas Gutierrez, the water district's governing board member. "We will have to refocus our efforts away from progress and action in order to, instead, comply with mandatory and time-consuming permit processing."

Altonaga said she would hold further proceedings to determine how to deal with the violation, which could include a range of options such as eliminating or reducing the pumping and creation of treatment systems. She cautioned that abruptly changing the decades-old practice will not be easy.

"There is no dispute that, at present (the water management agency) may not cease its backpumping operations because massive flooding would result," she wrote.

[Last modified December 12, 2006, 01:01:22]

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