MIAMI — A federal judge on Thursday urged federal and state environmental officials to take real, concrete steps toward reducing pollution in the Florida Everglades and move away from the endless court battles that have stalled progress for more than two decades.
Saying he is committed to holding the government's "feet to the fire," U.S. District Judge Alan Gold pressed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Florida to work out the differences in competing Everglades restoration plans and come up with a guaranteed way to pay for the costly work.
Otherwise, "what we're doing is going around in circles, again, trying to fine-tune something without the ability to implement it," Gold said. "We ought to be able to state clearly what we can do and can't do."
The hearing was the latest of many in a lawsuit originally filed in 2004 by the Miccosukee Indian tribe — whose reservation is in the Everglades — claiming state and federal agencies have repeatedly failed to enforce Clean Water Act standards in the vast wetlands. An even older lawsuit over many of the same issues dates to 1988.
Last year under Gold's watch, the EPA proposed a new $1 billion restoration plan focused on expanding huge manmade, buffering marshes used to filter phosphorous from water before it flows into the Everglades. The phosphorous comes from fertilizers used on farms such as sugar plantations and from suburban yards, promoting growth of unhealthy vegetation and choking out native plants.
A few months later, Republican Gov. Rick Scott proposed an alternative that the state's attorneys described Thursday as less time-consuming and less costly. The EPA is reviewing that plan to see whether it meets federal water quality standards, even as the agency tussles with the state over authority to issue water discharge permits.
"We want to get on with the business of restoring the Everglades," said Christopher Kise, attorney for the state Department of Environmental Protection. "We haven't lost any momentum. To the contrary, we have gained momentum in the past several months."
Anyone who has followed the Everglades lawsuits has heard similar sentiments before, usually with less-than-desirable results. Paul Schwiep, attorney for the Friends of the Everglades, noted that the state's new proposal came only after the EPA seemed poised to take over much of the control of restoration following orders issued last year by Gold.
"We do have some skepticism about this, but we are willing to talk," Schwiep said.