Reacting to the critically ill nature of Lake Okeechobee, leading Florida environmental groups today appealed to Florida Governor Jeb Bush and the Cabinet to order a halt to the pumping of polluted water into the ecologically fragile lake. The groups asked the Governor and Cabinet to reverse a March 27 decision by the South Florida Water Management District to backpump nutrient-rich water into the lake, which is already severely polluted. Earthjustice, Environmental Land Use Law Center, Florida Audubon Society, Florida Wildlife Federation, and Friends of Lake Okeechobee all are participating in today’s action.
“Backpumping is devastating for the aquatic life in Lake Okeechobee,” said Ansley Samson, an attorney with Earthjustice. “The lake is already in such critical condition, it’s on the verge of becoming a complete dead zone. This intentional addition of pollution is short-sighted and potentially catastrophic, and the Governor and Cabinet need to step in now to stop it before it’s too late.”
Before its decision to backpump, the district board had been widely expected to implement tighter restrictions on water use. But at the last moment, facing pressure from local business interests, the board decided to forego tighter restrictions, and to instead attempt to raise lake levels by pumping in water, rich in phosphorus, nitrogen, pesticides, and other harmful pollutants, from nearby agricultural areas. The board also loosened previous water restrictions on residents by expanding the hours for hand watering.
Environmentalists have opposed the District’s use of backpumping as an alternative to additional restrictions on domestic, commercial, and agricultural water use in South Florida. They say the board should have ordered those restrictions instead of authorizing an activity that harms wildlife and water quality.
“The District has refused to be accountable, and that’s why we need the Governor’s help,” said Lisa Interlandi, an attorney with the Environmental and Land Use Law Center. “Choosing to pollute Lake Okeechobee instead of requiring greater conservation is not what Florida’s environmental laws are all about. We are asking Governor Bush and the Cabinet to make sure the Water Management District knows that.”
The Water Management District made the decision to backpump in response to the continuing drought in South Florida, which threatens to cut into agricultural and municipal water supplies. Lake Okeechobee, the second largest lake in the United States, is the main source of water for agricultural users, and is the backup water supply for municipal users in the lower east coast. In recent months, lake levels have dropped to an unprecedented low.
According to the District’s own estimates, backpumping would add as much as 119.6 tons of phosphorus to Lake Okeechobee. This is nearly five times the allowable limit under a 1982 permit from the Department of Environmental Protection. According to today’s appeal, backpumping violates a myriad of Florida laws, including the recently approved Lake Okeechobee Protection Program, which is meant to clean up the lake by gradually reducing the amount of pollutants that can be discharged into it.
“Once again we have another sad chapter in the chronic mismanagement of Lake Okeechobee by the South Florida Water Management District,” said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation.
In the early 20th century, the lake was clear and clean and its periodic overflows nurtured the entire Everglades water system. But since the 1940s, the lake has been managed as a reservoir with an extensive system of dikes, levees and pumping stations. In addition to serving as a water source, the lake has become a depository for run-off from agribusiness operations. The result has been extensive degradation. In 1998 alone, for example, 885 tons of phosphorus were dumped into the lake. Its once-clear bottom has become a thick layer of phosphorus-laden muck. The recent legislation enacted to protect the lake was meant to reverse this trend.
The groups appealing to the Governor are using a provision of Florida law that allows the Governor and Cabinet, sitting as the Florida Land and Water Adjudicatory Commission, to review decisions by water management districts. The Commission can reverse these decisions if they are contrary to the state’s environmental laws.