Two decisions this month could signify eventual improvements in the health of the Everglades.
• The first decision came from U.S. District Judge Kenneth Karas in the Southern District of New York in a case involving regulations for “water transfer” practices throughout the country.
Part of the federal Clean Water Act case involves a decade-long suit filed by environmental groups against the South Florida Water Management District’s occasional back-pumping of polluted farmwater runoff from canals into Lake Okeechobee. The pumping is for flood control and to store water temporarily. In 2013, the district back pumped about 8 billion gallons of water into the lake between June 6 and June 12.
Judge Karas ruled that back-pumping that jeopardizes the supply of drinking water can be construed as a violation of the Clean Water Act. That includes actions that affect Lake Okeechobee.
It’s a good decision.
If upheld, the SFWMD would be required to apply to the Environmental Protection Agency for permits to allow any back-pumping into Lake O, and it would end the practice that allows the EPA to exempt the district from meeting water-quality standards when pumping water into the lake. Instead, the EPA would have to monitor the quality of any back-pumped water.
All well and good, if this is the end of the case. But things are never that simple when it comes to Everglades litigation in federal courts, where several cases have become long-running legal sagas.
In all likelihood, the district, the state of Florida or even the EPA will appeal the ruling, though it would be better for everyone, taxpayers especially, if the district were to accept the decision and end the costly litigation.
Challenging Judge Karas’ ruling means another in a series of delays to forestall a clean-up of the Everglades basin and allow untainted water to flow south into parched Everglades National Park and remove pollution threats to South Florida’s drinking-water supply. As it stands now, most of the dirty water is flushed into the sea on both Florida coasts.
• The other decision was a vote last Thursday by the SFWMD board of governors to commit financial support to the $1.9 billion Central Everglades Planning Project, a cluster of connected endeavors that would restore as much as two-thirds of the water needed to flow south from Lake Okeechobee into the park.
The project, known as CEPP, is a crucial component of the much bigger joint state-federal plan to restore the vast Everglades system. CEPP would reconnect long-separated wetlands, but there are still major concerns about how clean the water sent to these restored wetlands would be.
That establishes a clear link to Judge Karas’ ruling, which should be put into effect right away.
The SFWMD board’s action had some urgency, as CEPP — if realized — involves federal money and the U.S. Corps of Engineers, as well as state financing of a series of linked and long-needed construction projects.
A major public works bill is winding its way through Congress this year, and if the CEPP plan isn't included in the legislation it could be years before another chance comes along to get federal funding approved.
The thorniest issue remains cleaning up polluted water in the Central Everglades.
Both stormwater runoff from development and agricultural runoff pose huge challenges to the water management district and state and federal regulators.