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Judge rules state is violating water act
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published June 16, 2007
WEST PALM BEACH - A federal judge ruled Friday that the state's practice of back-pumping polluted water into Lake Okeechobee without a permit violates the U.S. Clean Water Act.
U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga ordered the South Florida Water Management District to apply for permits "forthwith" but did not set a deadline, most likely because even the judge acknowledged in a December finding that there was no quick fix to the decades-old practice.
Ruling lacks teeth
The ruling has no real teeth because it does not preclude the state from back-pumping water into the lake tomorrow should the need arise. A permit request would eventually go through the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"If and when we're asked, we'd be happy to evaluate that request to make the best decisions as to whether or not back-pumping should take place, " said Sarah Williams, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, which would issue the permit.
Since the 1970s, Florida water managers have pumped water from canals carrying pollutants from adjacent sugar-growing lands and cities into the lake for flood control and to bolster water reserves that could be used during drought.
Water managers say the method is crucial to keep cities from being inundated and that a lengthy permitting process would slow Everglades restoration and could put the state's entire flood control system in jeopardy. The district will likely appeal the judge's ruling.
With South Florida suffering from an unprecedented drought, the district as recently as Thursday heard proposals to begin back-pumping into the lake to help farmers who have seen millions of dollars in losses because of water restrictions.
Several groups, including the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, which considers the lake and the Everglades part of its ancestral home, sued the district, claiming that back-pumping of polluted water into the lake was putting Everglades restoration in jeopardy.
The groups also claimed the polluted water contains harmful nitrogen which creates toxic algae blooms and byproducts that can be dangerous to humans. Lake Okeechobee is a backup drinking water supply for millions in South Florida. At 730 square miles, it is the second-largest freshwater lake in the continental U.S.
"Plaintiffs have met their burden of showing the potential for irreparable harm, " Altonaga wrote in Friday's ruling.
David Guest, lead attorney for Earthjustice which argued the case on behalf of the plaintiffs, applauded the ruling, noting it gave merit to the claim that "there's a human health risk at play here."
"The water management district has been acting like back-pumping is just fine, and they now have a judgment against them saying they are required to change their ways, " Guest said, adding that the district should find other places to store water for agriculture and flood control.