On Friday the Second District Court of Appeal filed its long-awaited order in a multi-year court battle about continuing seawater intrusion into the southwest Florida drinking water aquifer. The seawater intrusion is a result of excessive water withdrawals that have been approved by the Southwest Florida Water Management District. The order paves the way for stronger regulation to bring the problem to a halt.
The case involved a challenge of proposed water management district rules brought by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund – the nation’s largest public interest environmental law firm – on behalf of the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida more than five years ago. Several counties and farm interests also brought challenges of the rules, and the challenges were consolidated.
The appellate court ruling reversed many parts of an administrative law judge’s 600 page ruling and upheld rules requiring water users to demonstrate that they will not cause adverse environmental effects to wetlands, lakes, streams, and wildlife, induce seawater intrusion or pollute groundwater. The court also decided that water users should be required to investigate the feasibility of reuse or desalination when they apply for permits to pump ground water.
“This is a great day for the environment of southwest Florida,” said Ansley Samson, an attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund in Tallahassee Florida. “The appellate court decision will give us the tools to really protect water resources”
“I just hope this has come soon enough. There is a lot of work to be done down here,” said Becky Ayech of the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, a nonprofit organization whose members live in southwest Florida. “Thousands of acres of trees are dying near me down here, and often I can’t get water out of my well. This ruling says that permits can be issued only to water users who won’t damage the underground aquifer. That’s great.”
On appeal, ECOSWF had contended that the rules upheld by the court were valid. ECOSWF had also challenged a proposed “minimum level” in the aquifer because it would allow seawater intrusion to advance inland at the rate of several inches per day for as long as 50 years. That rule has now been withdrawn and a new one is being prepared. The court specifically emphasized in its order the extent of saltwater intrusion in southwest Florida and the profound impact that continued intrusion would have on future generations.
“The signal from the Court is clear,” said attorney Ansley Samson, “seawater intrusion into the drinking water aquifer is a grave problem that the government is going to have to stop.”