Stop pumping pollution

Palm Beach Post Editorial


Saturday, December 16, 2006


A federal judge's ruling that could stop the state from pumping polluted water into Lake Okeechobee is sensible, straightforward and a good start on limiting public agencies from polluting public waters.


Not surprisingly, the South Florida Water Management District's first reaction was a false claim that the ruling would hinder Everglades restoration and offer no additional benefit to the environment. Rather than whine, district officials should begin planning how to cope with a new reality: Water managers no longer can pump pollution upstream from canals into the lake without a federal permit. That permit could require strict deadlines for reducing the amount of phosphorus, nitrogen and other pollutants that pumps near Clewiston, Belle Glade and South Bay push into the lake.


For Friends of the Everglades, the Florida Wildlife Federation and Fishermen Against Destruction of the Environment, the victory was a long time coming. Wayne Nelson of the fishermen's group recalls the incident that led to the lawsuit.


Wade-fishing in the lake 21 years ago, he tripped on a big, underwater mat of what appeared to be green steel wool. It was algae, fed by pollutants in water being pumped into the lake. He stuffed the mass into a plastic bag and showed it to a fellow environmentalist. The groups filed the lawsuit, which the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida eventually joined.


The plaintiffs long had complained about pumping polluted water into the lake. The pumping is necessary, water managers maintain, to get rid of flood water or to raise lake levels during droughts. The permits likely would include exceptions for emergencies during times of heavy rainfall, to avoid catastrophic floods. But backpumping during droughts should be prohibited. The polluted water kills the lake's grasses, which support marine life, and endangers Glades residents. While pumping from canals into the south end of the lake is only a part of the pollution problem, studies have linked the procedure to dangerous cancer-causing substances in the drinking water of Pahokee and South Bay.


U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga has not announced any penalties for the water district or ordered the district to seek federal permits. Those decisions are expected after further hearings next year. Ideally, the judge will set enforceable cleanup standards, with stiff fines or even jail time for violations, and start a program to continue monitoring the district's progress.


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