Jan 03, 2008

Fla. Water District Receives Support in State-Federal Water Dispute

Environmental groups contend district pollutes lake; district appeals issue of federal-state jurisdiction

Nine states and dozens of agencies and organizations have risen in support of the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and U.S. government position in a federal court case involving state authority over state water resource management, according to Environment News Service.

Three environmental groups--Friends of the Everglades, Florida Wildlife Federation, and Fishermen Against Destruction of the Environment--all represented by Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit in 2002 seeking to require federal discharge permits for moving water through three district pump stations on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee. The groups contend that SFWMD pumps millions of gallons of polluted water coming off of half a million acres of sugar cane fields and cities into the lake.

"The discharge contaminates drinking water supplies and fertilizes toxic blue-green algae blooms," according to Earthjustice, which filed the suit demanding the district comply with water quality standards in the lake and obtain Clean Water Act permits for its discharges.

A federal district judge in Miami ruled on Dec. 11, 2006, that the district must comply with the Clean Water Act. And the district must apply for pollution permits to engage in pumping dirty water into the lake, according to a federal court injunction issued June 15, 2007. The district complied with the injunction but filed an appeal regarding the issue of federal-state jurisdiction.

National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits are most commonly used "to regulate point-source discharges, such as from industrial activities or municipal waste operations," the district said. State water quality programs are used to regulate all other discharges, such as water transfers to provide for flood control, water supply, environmental restoration and other public needs.

"This NPDES case has implications that could impair water resources management across the nation," said SFWMD Governing Board Chairman Eric Buermann, according to the news service. "We are heartened by the breadth of support for the district’s position that a state's water resources should continue to be managed by the individual states, as they have been since the Clean Water Act was written 35 years ago."

It is in regards to the the appeal that the nine states and federal agencies filed briefs in support of the district, aimed at emphasizing to the court the case's serious and widespread impact.

Representing a wide range of interests, the briefs came from the National League of Cities, the National Hydropower Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, 23 water resource organizations and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, according to the news service.

Briefs from the district and from the U.S. Department of Justice representing all federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Agriculture were filed Dec. 14, 2007.

Over the next several months, more legal briefs will be prepared for the court, and oral arguments will be heard by a panel of three federal judges. The decision is expected in late 2008, the news service reported.