The Everglades: A National Gem Worth Protecting

Earthjustice has been working to restore the Everglades for decades.


The Everglades were drained and regarded as worthless swampland for many years before Floridians began to grasp the damage done to South Florida’s wilderness and water supply.

Earthjustice first got involved in the fight to restore this national environmental treasure decades ago. It was 1988, and the U.S. Attorney sued Florida because the state was failing to keep pollution from flowing into Everglades National Park and the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. Earthjustice joined the U.S. Attorney in the call for cleanup, intervening on behalf of many Florida and national environmental groups.

Since then, we have been honored to represent many committed Florida citizens. Our clients have included the National Parks Conservation Association, Florida Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Federation, Audubon Society of the Everglades, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, Conservancy of Southwest Florida and Save Our Creeks.

We have filed lawsuits to keep pollution from Everglades-area agricultural operations—including industrial sugar growing complexes—out of the delicate marsh. We have persevered when political winds changed over time, suing to make sure that federal and state governments kept their commitments.

We were instrumental in stopping what would have been the nation’s largest coal plant—right near the Everglades. We have been able to get effective pollution limits set, and marshes built, to filter runoff before it gets into the Everglades.

Today, we are fighting for numeric, quantifiable limits on water pollution from fertilizer, sewage, and manure in the state’s waters, including those running to the Everglades.

A Look Back At Earthjustice’s Many Cases Involving The Everglades:

1991 – Filtering Runoff: Gubernatorial candidate Lawton Chiles campaigned that he’d settle the 1988 suit with the U.S. Attorney and do right by the Everglades. After six months in office as governor, he did. The settlement agreement called for a 25 percent reduction in discharge from farms, and the state had to buy and set aside 35,000 acres as Storm Water Treatment Areas to filter runoff before it reached the Everglades.
This agreement had to be implemented through an official state plan, but the plan stalled.

1993 – Big Sugar: Earthjustice, representing the environmental community, fought to defend the plan in state court from attacks by Big Sugar and get it moving once again. The sugar industry lost the first round of litigation, and negotiations eventually trumped the remaining challenges.

1994 – Everglades Forever Act: The Florida Legislature passed a historic state statute, the Everglades Forever Act. This act was the state’s commitment to comply with the settlement agreement. Earthjustice negotiated that deal on behalf of the environmental community. These amendments were later incorporated into the settlement agreement, along with a requirement to construct an additional 5,000 acres of Storm Water Treatment Areas.

2004 – Water Pollution Limits: The Florida Legislature—at the bidding of polluters and their campaign cash—tried to undo the settlement agreement through legislation that extended timeframes and allowed legal excuses for noncompliance. Earthjustice represented the environmental community, and the Legislature’s effort to escape the terms of the settlement agreement was rejected by the federal judge.

Since then, we’ve been working to enforce the settlement agreement, and make sure the water pollution limits are met before water goes to Everglades National Park and the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. This work and the work of our allies have led to the court requiring an additional 18,000 acres of Stormwater Treatment Areas.

2007 – Coal Plant Victory Leads To Renewables: Earthjustice is instrumental in stopping what would have been the largest coal plant in the United States—right next to the Everglades.

Protecting Lake Okeechobee:

As part of our campaign to restore the Everglades, Earthjustice’s Tallahassee office has worked to clean up Lake Okeechobee, the second largest freshwater lake wholly within the United States. The lake, which once supplied clean water to the Everglades, is polluted by runoff from cattle ranches and dairy farms.

1999 – Limits On Fertilizer, Manure Pollution: Representing the environmental community, Earthjustice filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saying that the Clean Water Act required regulators to establish Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) limits for Lake Okeechobee—limits on fertilizer and manure pollution that contaminate the lake. As a result of the lawsuit, a rule was passed calling for a 70 percent reduction in pollution levels in the lake.

2002 – Contaminated Agricultural, Urban Canal Water: Earthjustice sued the South Florida Water Management District to require Clean Water Act permits for pumping contaminated agricultural and urban canal water into Lake Okeechobee. After a two month trial, the federal court ruled in our favor. Under pressure by polluter associations, the EPA—under the administration of President George W. Bush—changed the regulations to overrule our victory. We are challenging that rule in federal court.

2003 – Not Protective Enough: The Florida Department of Environmental Protection finally set Total Maximum Daily Load limits for tributaries which flow into Lake Okeechobee, but they were not protective enough for the lake’s health. Earthjustice sued on behalf of three Florida environmental organizations to stop Florida rules that would allow extremely high levels of fertilizer and manure pollution in Lake Okeechobee’s tributaries. We prevailed after a trial in that case in 2004, and substantially more protective limits were ultimately adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Setting Limits on Sewage, Fertilizer, and Manure Pollution in Florida Waters:

Earthjustice has also worked to stop sewage, manure, and fertilizer pollution. This pollution fouls the tributaries that flow into Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades, and it tips the marsh’s delicate balance.

2008 – Toxic Algae Outbreaks: After years of seeing toxic algae outbreaks on Florida tourist beaches like Sanibel Island and at fishing destinations like the St. Johns River, Earthjustice filed a Clean Water Act federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Florida on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, the St. John’s Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club. The suit challenged the decade-long delay by the state and federal governments in setting limits for phosphorus and nitrogen—so-called “nutrient pollution”—that comes from sewage, manure, and fertilizer.

2009 – EPA Settlement: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency settled the case, and set numeric limits for phosphorus and nitrogen.

2011 – Weaker Standards Set: The EPA backed off its limits, and, instead, allowed Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection to set its own, weaker standards.

2011 – Enforcing The Agreement: On Dec. 1, Earthjustice filed a legal challenge against the Florida DEP, because the standards it set for phosphorus and nitrogen pollution won’t protect residents and tourists from nauseating—and dangerous—toxic algae outbreaks.

The rule that the EPA set for Florida was a “speed limit sign” that gave everyone fair notice of what specific level of pollution would be allowed in a particular water body. If the speed limit was exceeded, regulators could take action to prevent toxic algae outbreaks and green slime. But the DEP’s rule doesn’t provide that certainty, and it won’t protect public health.