Saturday, December 23, 2006
Court rules SFWMD needs permits to transfer polluted water
By EMILIE ALFINO
A federal court in Miami ruled last week that the South Florida Water Management District violates the Clean Water Act when it pumps polluted farm runoff into Lake Okeechobee. The ruling is likely to cast doubt on the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to exempt water managers nationwide from the need to obtain permits when they transfer polluted water from one body of water to another.
The lawsuit against the water district was filed in 2002 by Friends of the Everglades, which was joined by the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Miccosukee Indian tribe. It challenged the South Florida Water Management District’s pumping of polluted water into Lake Okeechobee. Although U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga’s 107-page opinion didn’t impose any penalties on the water district, hearings will be held next year to address the issue of federal pollution permits. The judge’s opinion states, however, that the Clean Water Act clearly requires permits.
“The problems facing Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades are far from simple,” Altonaga wrote, and while permits might not “even substantially contribute to a solution, it is not the function of the court to second-guess Congress’ wishes.”
Mary Rawl, executive director of People United to Restore our Rivers and Estuaries, said the ruling is a huge victory for Florida’s waters.
“This case just echoes what we have been saying all along: It is illegal to pump polluted water from one source to another without proper permits,” Rawl said. “The very essence of the Clean Water Act passed in 1972 does not permit this, and I am very happy to see this upheld in the courts.”
According to Rawl, the current EPA rulemaking, if passed, would allow unpermitted transfers of polluted water to happen not just in the case addressed by the court’s ruling, but everywhere. PURRE submitted comments opposed to the EPA rulemaking.
Acccording to the South Florida Water Management District, the ruling could add significant time and expense to the Everglades restoration plan without providing environmental benefits.
“The judge’s ruling is especially troubling in that it creates a definite distraction from our forward momentum with Everglades restoration,” Gutiérrez said in a news release. “We will have to refocus our efforts away from progress and action in order to, instead, comply with mandatory and time-consuming permit processing.”
David Reiner, attorney for Friends of the Everglades, said via e-mail that the water management district’s position “continues to be that they either did not create the pollution they admit to pumping, or we can't prove they are responsible. In the meantime, Lake Okeechobee, the liquid heart of the Everglades, continues to deteriorate.”
PURRE Chairman Michael Valiquette, in the coalition’s comments to the EPA, wrote, “If the EPA implements any rule related to ‘water transfers,’ a rule adopting a case-by-case approach would be the most effective at ensuring the protection of the nation’s waters from pollutants.” Valiquette argued that discharges of water from Lake Okeechobee, which water managers can send “in three different directions through several different water management structures,” present very different circumstances “than dams along a river in the Western United States, where water managers realistically can only send water in one direction.”
“PURRE will follow this ruling and any appeals closely, as it is important to our legal strategy,” Rawl concluded.