U.S. Water News Online
MIAMI -- The trial has begun in a federal lawsuit filed by
environmental groups and an Indian tribe challenging the decades-old
practice by state water managers of pumping billions of gallons of
contaminated water into Lake Okeechobee.
The lawsuit contends that the South Florida Water Management
District should be forced to get federal permits for the pumping
under the federal Clean Water Act, which could force the district to
treat the polluted water or divert it elsewhere.
"Lake Okeechobee is a drinking water supply and ecological
treasure," said David Guest, who is representing the Florida Wildlife
Federation in the lawsuit. "These pumping operations are ruining the
water supply and threatening to kill the lake with pollution."
Since the 1970s, the water district has pumped water from nearby
sugar-growing lands into the lake for flood control and to boost lake
water supply during drought. The discharge is contaminated with
agricultural chemicals and runoff from nearby towns, contributing to
the poor quality of water in the 730-square-mile lake.
The water district, joined by the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency and U.S. Sugar Corp., argues that the Clean Water Act does not
apply because the pumping involves moving water from one location to
another with state approval. No pollutants or contaminants are added
and protections are in place for drinking water, they say.
"Congress never intended to have this layer of permitting on state
transfers of water," said Scott Glazier, litigation manager for the
water district. "These groups are trying to misapply the program."
A ruling that the Clean Water Act does apply could affect water
management throughout the country, especially in the West, Glazier
said. It could mean that water pumps would be considered the same as
other sources of pollution, such as industry.
The other plaintiffs in the case are the Fishermen Against the
Destruction of the Environment and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians,
which considers the Everglades south of the lake its traditional
home. The trial before U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonago is
expected to last about three weeks.
Gov. Jeb Bush in October announced a $200 million cleanup plan for
the lake, in part to reduce the discharges of huge amounts of
poor-quality water into the fragile St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee
estuaries downstream. The Everglades is in the midst of an $8 billion
restoration plan that is the largest of its kind ever attempted
If the lawsuit is successful, water managers say that could cause
delays in these restoration plans and diverted precious government
money and resources away from them.
"We think these are very serious consequences," Glazier said.
Environmentalists, however, say the polluted water contributes to
toxic algae blooms in the lake that kill fish and could be linked to
tests showing the presence of cancer-causing compounds in drinking
water in the town of South Bay.
"Lake Okeechobee is dying as a result of fertilizer pollution and
urban runoff," said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife
Federation. "There are other ways to deal with agricultural
wastewater but Florida only has one Lake Okeechobee."
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