"This is a critical milestone in the effort to restore Lake Okeechobee," said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. "We hope we can build on this decision to work closely with DEP to restore the Lake."
Earthjustice, representing Florida Wildlife Federation, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and Save Our Creeks, brought suit against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in 2003, challenging proposed pollution load limits -- standards used under the Clean Water Act to limit pollutants -- for streams that run into Lake Okeechobee.
Judge David M. Maloney issued the decision today in Tallahassee. "The evidence placed on the record by petitioners calls into question at every turn the process that the department followed," in drafting the pollution limits, Judge Maloney wrote. "Instead of the examination called for by scientific method, the department conducted a flawed process. Its after-the-fact attempts to prop up the process were not successful nor could they have been; the evidence demonstrates that the process was flawed from the beginning."
A previous lawsuit brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the same clients resulted in an agreement that DEP would draft the load standards for phosphorous. However, DEP allowed 25 tons of phosphorous annually, levels far too high to result in any significant recovery for the lake, which is already heavily polluted and damaged from phosphorous runoff.
Phosphorous is a nutrient that causes algae growth, low dissolved oxygen, clouded waters and other severe environmental problems. Lake Okeechobee -- the nation's second largest freshwater lake located wholly in the continental United States -- now has a two-foot layer of muck lining its bed. The cumulative discharge of phosphorous from surrounding dairy farms north of the lake from ten waterways has threatened the lake to the point of extinction; if phosphorous levels are not controlled and cleanup begins soon, the lake is likely to become a cesspool of algae, devoid of any fish or natural wildlife.
"This is the department's first attempt at drafting the pollution load standards, but it was without any scientific basis," said Manley Fuller, President of Florida Wildlife Federation, "Florida DEP must get these levels right if there is going to be any chance for the lake to survive."
Lake Okeechobee has become polluted over the last few decades by agricultural and dairy runoff, among other sources. The lake is the second largest in the United States and is home to thousands of species of subtropical plants and wildlife. The lake is the headwaters of the Everglades, and is a central component of the ecosystem of south Florida. Whatever flows into the lake will eventually make its way into the Everglades. Communities such as Clewiston and Belle Glade get drinking water from the lake, making it even more important to ensure a clean water quality.
Earthjustice is a national non-profit law firm that represents environmental organizations, citizens groups and citizens who are trying to protect the environment by enforcing the law.
Read the court's decision (pdf file)