Judge Refuses to End Decades-Old Everglades Cleanup Oversight

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  • The order allows the water district to file the motion again in the future.

A federal judge on Monday refused to end a decades-old court order that oversees water quality and environmental restoration in the sensitive Florida Everglades.

Miami U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno rejected a motion by the South Florida Water Management District to end a decree signed in 1992. Among other things, the order sets thresholds for the amount of phosphorous in the Everglades, an ingredient in fertilizer from the vast sugar-growing regions to the north that promotes unhealthy plant growth in the sprawling marsh.

Moreno said among his reasons for denying the water district's motion is that its governing board is being largely replaced by new Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has made the environment a top priority. The judge also said it would require a full evidentiary hearing on complicated scientific and environmental issues to end the decree.

"This is the right thing to do at this time," Moreno said at a hearing. "There's really no harm, is there?"

The order allows the water district to file the motion again in the future. The decree is not involved with other water problems that plagued Florida coasts last year, including red tide outbreaks and algae blooms.

The water district and sugar growers say the decree is outdated, thwarts projects that would benefit the Everglades and has been superseded by subsequent state and federal laws that guarantee restoration would continue. The projects include vast reservoirs that cleanse water flowing south from sugar farms before it flows into the Everglades.

"Twenty-seven years is enough. It's enough because it's unnecessary," said water board attorney Brian Accardo.

The U.S. government, environmental groups and the Miccosukee Indian tribe disagree, saying the decree is key to pursuing potential violations and ensuring the cleanup projects get built. They say it should remain in place until the Everglades has achieved an environmental balance close to its historical makeup. The Miccosukee reservation is in the Everglades.

"The decree is essential to protect the Everglades," said Anna Upton, attorney for the Florida Audubon Society. "We're not there yet. We've come a long way."

The decree arose out of a 1988 lawsuit filed by the U.S. against the water district claiming high phosphorous discharges were threatening the long-term future of the Everglades. The state and water district contended the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was equally responsible by moving polluted water into the area.

In 1992, the consent decree was signed involving the federal and state entities, setting goals for reducing phosphorous as well as the levels of water at the right times needed to keep the ecosystem healthy.

A key point in the settlement talks came with then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, showed up at a court hearing in 1991 and said: "We want to surrender. I want to find out who I can give my sword to."

Florida Department of Environmental Protection attorney Charles DeMonaco said about $2 billion has been spent to date on Everglades projects, with another $1 billion in the pipeline over the next four years. He said the state would also like to see the consent decree end, but only when there is an agreement on how success would be measured.

"We don't want to fight anyone. We want to end it," DeMonaco said.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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