Smack in the middle of a groundwater shortage that had Southwest Florida officials begging people to use as little water as possible, agricultural operations opened their pumps wide and flooded millions of gallons of water wastefully over their fields.
They had legal permits to do this, permits issued by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, a taxpayer-funded water authority. We sued the water management district two years ago. On October 30, a Florida Appeals Court finally ruled in our favor.
Our client was the Crowley Museum and Nature Center in Sarasota, where thousands of protected trees died after its lands , along with public lands in the upper Myakka River’s Flatford Swamp, were inundated with pesticide and fertilizer-laden wastewater from nearby vegetable growing operations. Even large trees drowned, their roots saturated.
Field researchers reported itchy, burning rashes when they waded through the water, most probably from toxic algae called Lyngbya, which is fueled by fertilizer.
The District originally argued that it had no legal responsibility to stop the flooding. A trial court dismissed the case in 2007, and we appealed.
In its October 30 opinion, the Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland ruled that the trial court improperly dismissed the case, and suggested that it might be appropriate to revoke the District permits altogether. The court made clear its dim view of flood-irrigation, noting that the District had the authority to put a stop to it.
It’s been a decade since the first tree die-offs appeared in Southwest Florida. Now, this ruling affirms what we said in the beginning: that the District should be required to stop allowing wasteful irrigation flooding.
It seems unbelievable to us that Florida public water managers still allow flood irrigation in an area where, only last year, people were getting fines for watering their lawns.
Drip irrigation has been used elsewhere for more than 30 years. Farmers know that it can cut water usage by 50 to 80 percent. The trick is that the plastic tubing, with small holes, delivers water close to the plant’s roots. The systems can also be used to precisely deliver fertilizer, which means less of it runs off and pollutes our waterways.
This court decision is an important precedent. We continue to work to bring Florida water managers into the 21st century so that our public resources aren’t continually squandered for private profit.