A federal judge brought long-awaited clarity and common sense last week to the state's age-old practice of pumping polluted water into South Florida's Lake Okeechobee. U.S. District Judge Kenneth Karas' finding that the practice violated the Clean Water Act is a victory for public health and Florida's environment, and it should prompt South Florida water managers to quit wasting the tax money spent cleaning up the Everglades basin by continuing to contribute to its pollution.
For decades, the South Florida Water Management District has pumped water from canals along sugar-farming areas near the shoreline into Lake Okeechobee, both to prevent flooding and to boost levels in a lake that serves as a drinking water source for millions in South Florida. While water management district officials say the pumping is rare, environmental groups sued, seeking to force the district to obtain federal permits before pumping fertilizer-laden farm runoff back into the lake.
Friday's ruling from New York's Southern District came in a consolidated case that had grown from a decade of litigation in Florida. In his ruling, Karas held that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was required to regulate the practice under the Clean Water Act. The judge said that EPA had no authority to issue a blanket exemption to the permitting process. Though he invited the EPA to narrow the rules for allowable discharges, the judge nonetheless affirmed the public purpose behind the Clean Water Act — and the need for the federal government to enforce it.
The ruling puts the water management district and the EPA on notice that their first obligation is to public health, not to agribusiness. The excessive nutrients wouldn't flow to the lake without the state pumping them there. And recirculating these excessive nutrients hurts the entire basin. The ruling affirms the role the federal government needs to play in ensuring state compliance with the Clean Water Act. And it should crack down on future abuses by clarifying when operators must seek a discharge permit.
The district and the EPA should respond in good faith and not seek to appeal the ruling or delay the impact on procedural grounds. The state has already lost more than a decade on what should be a shared public goal of removing these chemicals from the South Florida watershed.
Officials should instead craft a permitting process that seeks to keep this pollution from public water bodies — a solution more in keeping with the simultaneous and costly effort by the state and federal governments to clean up and restore the Everglades. The environmental community can be a partner. These agencies need to reach beyond the lawyers and chart a course for improving the state's ecosystem and drinking water supply. And it shouldn't take another lost decade.